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The Night Witches: Women Soldiers That History Forgot

I have always adored history. Not so much the sweeping events that make up the basis of our cultural knowledge, but the story of the people who make history happen. For me, history is the story of someone I relate to, the little guy who gets caught up in a big thing. For me, history is the story of the double amputee who escaped from a Nazi prisoner of war camp three times. History is the story of the woman who built her own tank and went to the front in World War II. And the history that has captured my imagination for some five years now is the story of Russian women who flew biplanes against Messerschmidts—and won.

The Night Witches were the first all-women’s combat regiment in modern history. They fought red tape (if you’ll forgive the pun), bureaucracy, and sexism for the right to fly the worst the USSR had to offer against a far superior German war machine. Their official name was the 588th Night-Bombing regiment, and on paper their mission was simple: drop things. They dropped bombs, leaflets, bricks, and railroad ties—anything that would keep the Germans from sleeping.

They flew inferior biplanes that were so slow, enemy aircraft couldn’t even catch them; planes that tried had to slow down so much that their engines stalled. The Night Witches flew so low to the ground they could be shot by your average German with a gun, and their planes were so flammable that usually one shot was all it took to bring them down. Nevertheless, they were dubbed Nachthexen by the Germans for their deadly silence and precision. Every night the Night Witches would cruise to their target, then shut off the engine to make a silent dive. They’d release the bombs (sometimes climbing out on the wing to release a sticky trigger) and restart the engine as they pulled away. The Night Witches made up to eighteen of these missions a night.

When fighting for the Soviet Union, their lives weren’t the only things on the line. They had to excel over the men on their base to shake a reputation of inferiority that they’d never earned. Worse, the USSR had a hard policy on soldiers that were captured or went missing in enemy territory: they were assumed to have defected or broken under torture, and were considered traitors until and unless their loyalty was proved to the state. Some women who died in enemy territory weren’t properly recognized for decades after the war was over.

I was devastated that someone could be rewarded in such a way for their service—and I was intrigued by the dedication the Night Witches showed anyway. I wanted to write about women who would risk it all, and why, and what friendships they would forge in the fire of war. I wanted to write about women who relied on each other. I wanted to write about women who survived and thrived in spite of the men in their lives. So I wrote We Rule the Night, about women who fly in the face of derision, oppression and death, and become best friends along the way.

I hope you enjoy it.

 


 

Don’t Call It a Comeback: Why Tristan and Iseult Are Still Going Strong after 800 Years

When, at nineteen, I encountered the Tristan legend for the first time, it felt more like watching an action-packed popcorn flick than reading a medieval manuscript. Forget Perceval, that pious weenie; Beroul’s The Romance of Tristan was the real blockbuster of a legend. It had magical potions, an evil dwarf, loads of lepers, dark and twisted love, problematic sex and an extravagance that couldn’t be missed. Someone should make this into a movie, I thought.

And in fact, someone did. I learned this one gray day several years and one move to New York later as I waited in traffic to go through the Lincoln Tunnel. There, soaring above the landscape of gridlocked cars, was a billboard of a medieval knight, his chiseled cheekbones so sharp they looked like they might impale his leading lady, his soulful eyes trained on the horizon.

Damn it, I thought. James Franco beat me to it.

But he was hardly the first. The Tristan and Iseult story was committed to the page sometime in the 12th century, though it was probably part of oral tradition for at least several centuries before. There are endless versions of the story, and therefore, endless variation in the intricacies of the plot, but the basics run something like this: Tristan, a knight of Cornwall, defeats the villainous Morholt and wins the hand of the Irish princess Iseult for his uncle, King Mark. On their way back to Cornwall, things don’t go quite as planned, and they end up drinking a love potion prepared by Iseult’s lady-in-waiting, Brangain. Iseult marries Mark, but continues to engage in some decidedly unstealthy adultery with Tristan, and when they’re caught, they escape to the wilderness. Eventually they make peace with Mark, though Tristan is banished from the kingdom. And—spoiler alert—in most versions, a tragic death scene for Tristan or for both lovers wraps things up.

If that sounds action-packed to you, you should know that that’s just the bare bones. In the Beroul version, the one I read as an undergraduate, there are fights with dragons, swords lodged in skulls, Iseult’s prowess as a mystical healer, a scene in which Brangain sneaks through the darkness to take Iseult’s place in Mark’s bed, a deranged dwarf with a penchant for outlandish adulterer-nabbing schemes, the main characters’ narrow avoidance of being burned at the stake, death-defying leaps from windows, an interlude in which Mark threatens to give Iseult to a gang of lepers, a second love interest for Tristan also named Iseult, and some magical love trees that Mark attempts to mow down like kudzu.

Many iterations of the legend embrace a similarly go-big-or-go-home attitude. There’s the Richard Wagner opera, for instance, which is the version that most Westerners know best. Wagner first conceived of it as a quick little side project to make him some cash in between composing parts of the Ring Cycle, but it turned into a four-hour ode to unresolved longing. A Norwegian poet, writing to his friend after viewing an early performance of Tristan und Isolde, declared it “the most enormous depravity I have ever seen or heard.”

But Wagner’s vision is only one among many: A John Updike novel, a film version from Vichy France, a song from a German power metal band, a Bollywood musical…even the oldest surviving European quilt tells the Tristan legend. Once I started looking, Tristan and Iseult were everywhere; they wouldn’t leave me alone. I wanted to find a way to make the story my own, but I was stymied by how to take the story of a medieval knight (to say nothing of the love potions and lepers) and write a version that felt fresh, that felt as though the world needed one more retelling.

The solution, as it turned out, had less to do with how to shoehorn a dragon scene into Bed-Stuy than recognizing what made some of those earlier versions so relevant to their fans. Wagner was inspired as he wrote Tristan und Isolde by events in his personal life, but also by events in the wider world. He was living as a political exile after his participation in a failed uprising in Germany; it’s not so hard to imagine him channeling those feelings into his Tristan and Isolde, both emigrants from the lands of their births, two fish out of water who stumble into the embrace of the other.

I began to understand that any version of Tristan and Iseult that I might write, if it was to be a worthwhile contribution to the eight-hundred-years-plus legacy of the story, would need to have resonance with the society around it, to serve as a window into my own little world of Brooklyn and beyond. I came to believe that the Tristan legend is so powerful because at its heart, it’s about the problems that still plague us today: our fear of people who are strange to us, our struggles with those in power, our helplessness in the face of forces that are beyond our control, our desperation to find a place or a person in the world to call home. That grandiosity that I felt when I first read the story wasn’t about love potions and swordplay. It was because the legend of Tristan and Iseult—like all the great stories that we find ourselves telling again and again, over decades, over centuries, over millennia—taps into something that makes us a little uncomfortable, that shows us our human flaws and frailties, that cuts close to the bone.

I thought a lot about those frailties, and then I finally, finally sat down at my computer and attempted to follow in the footsteps of Beroul and Wagner.

In my version of the story, Tristan becomes a chess prodigy rather than a knight, Izzy is an aspiring doctor rather than a magical healer, and not a single character is sold to a gang, comprised of lepers or otherwise. But what is perhaps more remarkable is how much stayed the same. The story is so beautifully elastic that it can be stretched to fit on a New York City billboard or the stage of a grand opera house or shrunk to fit onto the chessboards of Brooklyn, and it still makes us feel that stab of familiarity, that bittersweet recognition of love and longing and loss. After all these centuries, it’s still a blockbuster.

 


 

 

Author Essay: Erin Gough on Amelia Westlake Was Never Here

Amelia Westlake Was Never Here was inspired by a hoax that two friends and I invented in our final year of high school. Our aim was to amuse ourselves and, with any luck, our fellow classmates by creating an imaginary student called Amelia Westlake. We began small, putting Amelia’s name down on lists for sports teams, graffitiing it on school desks, and accepting birthday party invitations on her behalf. We waited to see if anyone noticed.

 

They noticed. It is safe to say our classmates became somewhat obsessed with finding out who Amelia Westlake was. We carried on pranking until the end of the year without anyone discovering the truth. Amelia Westlake donated prizes to Trivia Night, she sent postcards from exotic locations, she even entered a painting (depicting a giant question mark) in the final year art exhibition. Our hoax was the most fun thing I did in my entire school career, and every time I see Amelia Westlake’s name on the cover of my published book, I want to laugh out loud. It’s her best prank yet.

 

What became clear as I began writing her story, though, was that I wanted to convey more than just the fun my friends and I had that year. Amelia Westlake Was Never Here also provided an opportunity to explore serious topics like power and privilege, the disadvantages that young women particularly face, and how there are ways—often creative ones—in which young people can harness their talents and skills to challenge power. To find their voice.

 

When my friends and I were conducting our hoax, I hadn’t found my voice yet. I was an obedient teenager who studied hard and was trying her best to be interested in boys. I didn’t even know any lesbians, so the thought that I was a lesbian myself was inconceivable.

 

Except that it wasn’t inconceivable. Not really. Not to me. Just to everyone around me. What was inconceivable was that I would ever admit the truth.

 

In this respect, Harriet and Will, the two main characters in Amelia Westlake Was Never Here, have a better experience of high school than I did. They live in a world where they can be more open about their sexuality. But they still face hurdles on the road to equality—both as lesbians and as young women.

 

What Harriet and Will must learn is that they can stand up for themselves, that while in some respects they are disadvantaged, they have an immense amount of privilege, which they can harness not just for their own benefit, but for others who are less empowered.

 

In the novel, Amelia Westlake’s motto is “Play the Power, not the Game.” It is a call to arms to young people everywhere to challenge the structures around you; don’t comply with them. Stand up for yourself and others. Take action. Be creative. Be brave. And have yourself some fun along the way.

 


Author Essay: Rhett Miller on No More Poems!

If my kids think I’m cool, they hide it remarkably well. The fans of my music seem to think I’m cool. The internet sometimes does, I guess. But my kids? By all measurable indicators, my kids find me stupendously boring. Especially as they find their way into full-blown adolescence, Max and Soleil slot me further and further down the list of worthwhile expenditures of time and attention.

This becomes especially problematic when I am out on the road doing my weird job, which mostly consists of dancing and howling on a stage somewhere far away from our family’s living room. You may well point out how much technology has helped the parent who travels for work to connect with their kids back at home. Problem is, the kids have to want to connect. Which is how I landed on the idea of writing these poems.

Since their earliest years, we’ve enjoyed reading to each other. Shel Silverstein, Roald Dahl, Edward Gorey, etc. are all favorites in our house at bedtime. We’d take turns, each reading a poem and passing the book around. Afterwards, when the lights had gone out, we’d speculate about the inner lives of the characters in the poems, imagining their eventual post-poem fates. At some point in the midst of this sweet spot in the kids’ development, I realized that I wanted to try to impress them with poems of my own.

I had to be careful how I presented this undertaking. They might not technically have been teenagers yet, but they were still way too cool to just sit around and listen to their old man. Instead, I asked them to be my first editors, encouraging them to offer as harsh a critique as they could muster on each successive draft of my new poems. They relished every opportunity to tell me just how wrong I’d gotten some detail of language or the inner motivation of a character. And you know what, they were pretty much always right.

But every time I coaxed a laugh out of my kids, or got a grudging admission of approval, I knew I was onto something. And the poems started to pile up. And I got better at composing them. And before I knew it, I had the makings of an honest-to-goodness collection of kids’ poetry.

The twists of fate through which I landed at Little Brown with the great Megan Tingley and Anna Prendella, the sheer dumb luck that brought me the opportunity to collaborate with the brilliant Dan Santat… Suffice to say that I couldn’t have gotten any luckier. But my kids? Max and Soleil are somehow still wildly unimpressed. Guess I better get back to work.

yrs,
Rhett


 

A Conversation with Samira Ahmed & Monica Hesse, authors of Internment and The War Outside

LB School: How did the ideas for each of your books come to you, and why did you feel that they were stories that needed to be told?

 

Samira Ahmed: I always see a character first and then begin by writing a short story around that character to see if the story has legs, to see if this is a character I want to build a world around. After the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, there was a significant uptick in Islamobphobic rhetoric in the United States that spread to changes in policy and an increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes. There was a public guilting or scapegoating of Muslims as if all Muslims had to bear the onus of the terrible acts committed by a few. American Muslims, as ever, were seen as other, a group that continually and consistently was being asked to prove its Americanness, but always falling short because of bigoted standards.

 

That was the environment in which Layla’s story came to me. I imagined a young woman who just wanted to live her life—go to school, play on the tennis team, apply to college—but who wasn’t allowed to because of fear mongering and Islamophobia. I’m very interested in understanding and unpacking the moments in childhood where life is shattered—how kids react to that gross unfairness, how they respond, how they resist. I believe that teens can be incredibly brave—are often forced to be—because of the failure and cowardice of adults. It doesn’t mean they’re not scared—their courage comes from being scared but knowing act and speak out anyway. That is what I set out to explore in Internment.

 

Monica Hesse: While I was doing some research for a previous book, I came across a black and white photo of a young woman in a tiara, wearing a corsage. It had obviously been taken at a school dance; the caption said the girl was 16, and the prom queen of Federal High School in Crystal City, Texas. It also explained that Crystal City was an internment camp. This completely blew my mind. If your education was like mine, Japanese internment in World War II was skimmed over in history class—maybe something you’d talk about for a day or two. I didn’t know much about individual experiences, and I was completely drawn to this young woman in the photograph. What would it be like to be the prom queen of your internment camp? What kind of internment camp would even have such a thing?

 

It turned out that Crystal City also had a football team, cheerleaders, a beauty salon—and that hundreds of teenagers, Japanese-American and German-American, grew up there, trying to eke out a regular American existence against the backdrop of imprisonment. I’m always looking for stories like that: what is it like to be a normal teenager in an abnormal time, and impossible circumstances? My two main characters, Haruko and Margot, are now prisoners through no fault of their own. Their families are falling apart. Their worlds are upended. And they have to ask themselves: in a camp full of people the government says are spies, who can they trust? How do you know who the enemy is, when your country says it’s you?

LBS: Internment is set in a near future that has arresting similarities to our own current world. How do you think fiction, and in particular YA fiction, helps foster and guide much-needed conversations about tough topics?

 

SA: I say that Internment is set 15 minutes into a terrifying future, but the fact is, the events of the novel are rooted in elements of America’s deeply disturbing history. Too often, we believe that specific moments in time—like this crucible we seem to be living in now—exist in a vacuum. But the past is prologue. I think young adult literature is a perfect place to explore this idea—how the past is always with us, but also how we are not doomed to repeat the past.

I believe that young adult literature exists in the realm of possibility—a space where tough questions can be asked and where difficulties are encountered, but, ultimately, a place of hope. As young people are forming their own politics and coming into adulthood, it’s a unique opportunity to speak to tough topics. I think teens are incredibly capable of rooting out truths and while the 24-hour news cycle confronts us with facts and “facts” without end, I believe fiction allows us to explore ideas in deeper and complex way. Fiction enables us to see our interrelatedness as human beings.

 

LBS: The War Outside is set in 1944 during WWII and focuses on an aspect of American history that isn’t much spoken about. What do you think historical fiction can teach us about our current world? What attracts you to historical fiction, and what do you think it offers readers?

 

MH: There are a few essential questions the United States keeps asking, at various times and about various groups of people. What does it mean to be an American? Who belongs in this country, and how should we treat the new people who arrive? We asked that question about slavery in the Civil War, we asked it about Japanese immigrants in World War II, and we’re asking it now, about immigrants and asylum seekers from the southern border. The rhetoric that government officials were using at the time to justify internment camps is really similar to the rhetoric used now to justify putting minors in detention centers now. They’re hard, complicated issues. But to me, historical fiction is a way to think and talk about those issues in a space that feels safe.

 

LBS: What does resistance mean to each of you?

 

MH: I think we often get preoccupied with big, dramatic acts of resistance: protests, rescue missions and escapes. But there’s a quieter kind of resistance that is no less important: the small, noble act of keeping your humanity when the world is inhumane. Refusing to believe that someone is less than you just because they’re different than you. Willing yourself to be a rigorous thinker in a sea of propaganda. Those are small, quiet acts that anyone can do, and they’re deeply important. That’s the kind of resistance in The War Outside.

 

SA: Oppression and silent complicity go hand in hand. Resistance, to me, means, first, and foremost, refusing to be silent. We must speak truth to power, in the best ways we are able and with the means we can access. I know not everyone can march or protest or perform acts of civil disobedience, but we simply cannot afford to be silent. And it may feel uncomfortable, or difficult, but we all must use the power and privilege that we have to dismantle the mechanisms that seek to harm the very foundations of our democracy and our humanity. Sometimes this means confronting difficult truths about ourselves—about our willingness to sacrifice a part of our privilege so that we can lift others up. One thing I know, no human being is born voiceless, but many are forcibly silenced by those who use their power as a bludgeon. We cannot let that stand.

 

LBS: What do you want readers to take away from each of your books?

 

MH: Wars don’t just happen to countries, they happen to people. The biggest ones can happen inside yourself. I hope The War Outside invites young readers to think about what they believe, and where those beliefs came from, and how far they’d go to protect them.

 

SA: I believe that the seemingly simple act of reading, is in fact, profound. Reading is resistance.

Though Layla’s life and circumstances may be very different than theirs, I hope young readers will be able to see a part of themselves in Layla’s hopes and dreams and her fierce desire to be free, live life on her terms and combat the sinister forces of silent complicity and overt oppression. I hope that Internment encourages readers to ask critical questions about how Layla’s fictional world is a reflection of the world we live in now. I hope young readers will realize that their voices and their actions can change the world by drawing attention to injustices and by compelling politicians to change the policies that strip away the rights of their fellow human beings. I hope that young readers will realize the power they have to speak up and speak out when they see injustice in their schools, communities and their nation. Young people are brave. They shouldn’t have to be, but too often, those who should be protecting them press them into horrifying circumstances—still their courage shines. It’s a light. I hope they use it to lead the way, forward.

 


 


Author Essay: Tony Abbott

On Revisitng Old Characters in The Great Jeff

 

When I wrote Firegirl, published thirteen years ago now, like most readers, I had a problem with Jeff Hicks, a boy who bullied both Tom Bender, who tells the story, and Jessica, a girl whose horrific accident left her disfigured and isolated. While Tom gets to know Jessica a bit, Jeff’s response to her is unrepentantly cruel. When Tom Bender drops him as a friend at the end, I thought it was a good thing.

And it was a good thing. For Tom. But only for a while.

I’ve written before about how a few years ago, not thinking about these old characters at all, I saw a boy, and within seconds knew he was Jeff Hicks. I had privately vowed that I wouldn’t return to the world of Firegirl in another book. I’d said what I wanted to there, and had moved on to other things. But the power of Jeff’s “appearance” was striking. In that brief glimpse, the core of a new story—the gradual, then swift disintegration of Jeff’s home life—rolled over me. I felt instant sympathy for this character who, like Tom and many readers, had been left in the cold. I could say Tom left him, but in truth it was I who had left him in the cold.

Now, here he was again.

Learning his current situation, I found it heartbreaking, and knew that—like everyone we see—he had a story just as important and real as Tom’s or Jessica’s. He was just as human, he hurt and bled, got angry and laughed like we do, and was mortally terrified of losing himself to whatever bad thing was out there.

So I followed him. I shadowed him, peeked in, listened, put his words on paper, transcribing what he said and thought about his life, about his mother’s inability to keep a roof over his head. This became The Great Jeff, which I’ve never thought of as an ironic title in any way. This is his personal story, filled with Jeff-isms that will make readers weep and wince, but it’s all too common, and it’s all around us. When substance abuse meets poverty, when pride and anger combine, when safety nets are stretched too thin, people fall. Jeff Hicks is a snotty kid, fiercely angry about so many things he’s been handed to deal with, but he deserves to be helped.

Writing The Great Jeff has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my close to thirty years imagining books for younger readers. I’m deeply proud of it, as I’m proud of who Jeff becomes, and can become beyond this book. Because of his vulnerability and inner strength, and his humor, he is one of my favorite people.

I hope readers come to The Great Jeff and are able to bring him into their lives as I did.

 


 

Author Essay: Florence Gonsalves

A couple of years ago, when I’d just graduated from college, scared out of my mind with no idea what the future would hold, humor kind of saved my life. “Ancient Greece isn’t hiring,” I told people who asked how my philosophy degree would influence my career path. “I’ll probably be permanently unemployed in the year 450 BCE.”

 

At first, I’d tried the whole, “I’ll probably go to law school!” approach, but that wasn’t the truth at all and telling that little white lie was making me feel worse and worse. The truth was I was petrified, and the only way I could access those emotions was by poking a little fun at myself. Once I started joking about my predicament, I was able to come to terms with it and eventually move past it.

 

Instead of law school, I ended up writing what would become my debut novel, Love and Other Carnivorous Plants. The story follows nineteen-year-old Danny’s summer after her freshmen year of college. It covers a lot of taboo subjects—eating disorders, mental health concerns, drug and alcohol abuse, and questioning one’s sexuality. Danny’s approach to such “touchy” issues is to joke about them, which results in a lot of humor for a book about some pretty serious stuff.

 

One of the beautiful things about fiction is its capacity to speak to real life issues in a person’s life, but to do that the characters (and of course, the author!) have to somehow find a way into what is otherwise hush-hush. So often taboo topics aren’t discussed at all because they are treated so seriously. And treating a subject as so serious that it can’t be joked ironically increases its taboo.

 

As a writer, humor gives me the permission to approach the things that society tells me I shouldn’t. It is the access point to otherwise unapproachable topics, and if we never approach such things, how can we expect to confront them at all? If Danny couldn’t joke about her bulimia, for example, she wouldn’t have been able to talk about it, which would have been a missed opportunity to really explore the pain (but also the occasional lol! moment) of her situation. Taboo creates shame and shame creates secrets, as well as shadows where even darker emotions hide. I think it’s much more important that difficult subjects be broached in the first place, especially because usually those difficult subjects make a person feel lonely and laughter is a universal connector. A good HAHA! brings people together at times when connection is most needed, and at some point the humor does fall away, making room for other emotions.

 

I am so grateful that humor exists as a way of shedding light on those parts of ourselves that most need it. Laughter allows transformation to occur through acknowledgment and acceptance of what is, regardless of how lousy things seem. When it comes to expressing our struggles, I say, as Vievee Francis does, “Say it. Say it any way you can.” Find a way in to a find a way out. Crying is inevitable. Why not let laughter be, too?

 


 

 

Oge Mora on writing Thank You, Omu!

When Little, Brown acquired my book dummy Omu’s Stew, my editor Andrea said that we needed to change the name. “The double oo’s don’t flow nicely,” she explained to me. I verbally agreed, but I wasn’t entirely convinced. Even after we mutually decided on Thank You, Omu! I still wasn’t sure, and as I collaged spreads I debated between Omu’s Feast and Omu’s Magic. Today, as my book is on shelves, I can say with certainty that Thank You, Omu! is the right title. However for me, it didn’t come down to double oo’s. Instead, it’s because Thank You, Omu! isn’t about stew at all.

 

Looking back, this is why I insisted on not including a stew recipe. I thought long and hard about it, and even began to draft one, but I decided it didn’t make sense to include it. A recipe should be able to be replicated, but as my mother and I joke often, you’ll never cook or taste the same stew twice. My grandmother’s stew is a thick, spicy stew that is cooked down for hours. My aunt’s stew is thin, mild, quick to make, yet still delicious. The only thing the differing styles share is a tomato base and a red color. Like people, every stew has its own personality, and each stew is an experience that is vivid and distinct in its own right. And like a person, you can’t write that down.

 

Still, while Thank You, Omu! is not about stew, “thick red stew” is a main character and making it is not easy. Though the Omu in the book puts her stew on simmer and goes into another room, stew in reality has to be constantly attended to. Not only do you need to stir every couple of minutes, but there are onions to chop, meats and leafy greens to add, and countless seasonings to sprinkle in. Traditional stew takes both time and skill. Therefore, when Omu opens the pot in the end and sees it empty she’s devastated. Yes, that big fat pot of thick red stew was destined to be the best dinner she ever had, and Omu is sad it’s gone, but the process also took an inordinate amount of time.

 

Nevertheless despite all her effort, Omu never hesitates to share with her neighbors. Giving can be a sacrifice of time and talent, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. While the neighborhood brings every intricate dish you can imagine, it is the little boy’s simple letter that shares the same collage paper as Omu’s stew. The stew and the thank you letter are equal in value. While having a delicious stew was the dinner Omu expected, the thank you letter the little boy presents her with is what she truly wanted. The countless hours she spent making the stew were worth that one note. I’ve come to cherish the name Thank You, Omu! because at the heart that’s what this book is. It’s a thank you. Like the little boy, I’ve written my own thank you letter. Not simply to my grandmother, but to everyone who has given me love, encouragement, and support. What my community, what my grandmother taught me is that life is more than what you can get. It’s about what you can give.

 

I’ve always thought of collage as a conversation. You talk to the work, and the work talks back to you. You can craft things with all the intention you desire, but in the end like stew, the work decides what it wants to be. While I stubbornly believed Omu’s Stew was the right name, today, at the end of this journey, I am glad I listened back. And I’m still listening. Every time someone tells me about their own cherished loved one and the meals they bought or cooked and shared with them, my story grows and changes. While my senior project Omu’s Stew was about a popular Nigerian dish, my book Thank You, Omu! is a reflection on food’s magical ability to bring us all together.

Tracy Banghart on the inspiration behind Grace & Fury

On the night of November 8th, 2016, I was poised to celebrate. A woman was about to be elected president of the United States. A woman! I’m not that old and yet I remember so much casual sexism growing up, so many lessons I was taught that, in hindsight, were about preserving the patriarchy, not my safety or well-being. I may have been late to the party, as it were, but I was 100% ready for a female president. Women had been fighting for this moment for so long. And now here we were, shattering the glass ceiling once and for all.

Of course, that’s not what happened.

Grace and Fury was born out of the disappointment and anger I felt that night. Because of that night, Serina and Nomi, Grace and Fury’s main characters, were born into a world that oppressed them and dismissed them at every turn.

There’s an old adage that a writer should “write what you know.” I don’t know what it’s like to not be allowed to read, as in Grace and Fury. Or how truly terrifying it is to be forced to fight to the death. But I do know how heavy the weight of expectation can feel. And the difficulty of trying to be your own person when everyone around you is telling you to follow the crowd. Don’t make waves. Be pleasant.

Smile.

One of my favorite details in Grace and Fury is a tidbit about the history of the patriarchal world. We discover that women have been oppressed not because they’re seen as weak but because men are afraid of them. This idea—that women are a threat to the status quo and therefore dangerous—was something I played with a lot in the book. Because, as sad as it is, it’s a dynamic I see all around me in real life. Mansplaining, as a way to undercut a woman’s expertise or experience. That’s a response to a threat. Setting women up to compete with one another instead of encouraging them to work together—divide and conquer. A response to a perceived threat. And how many of us remember a powerful woman being condemned by the media, not for being inept or corrupt, but for being overprepared? Strong women that question and fight back against a system that limits their opportunities and freedoms are, for those who support and buy into the patriarchy, frightening.

In Grace and Fury, not every female character is strong in the same way. But they all, to different degrees and at different times, fight to subvert or dismantle the system holding them back. And, importantly, they aren’t the only ones. There are male characters who are uncomfortable with the status quo as well. Because feminism isn’t about man-hating or elevating women above men. It’s about striving for equality. Equal opportunities, an equal seat at the table.

My characters may live in a world much harsher and more oppressive than the one I’m privileged to live in. But we are all fighting for the same thing. I still have hope that I’ll get to celebrate the election of a female president someday. But if the last two years has taught me anything, it’s that nothing will change without working for it. Like Serina and Nomi at the end of Grace and Fury, I—we all—still have a lot of work to do.

Mark Tatulli: Becoming Short & Skinny

Short & Skinny cover“You wrote a graphic novel memoir? Who wants to read a story about you?!”

This ungallant sentence was spoken to me by a cartooning compatriot when I gave him the news that I had sold Short & Skinny, a mini-memoir of my life in the summer of 1977. You might think my first reaction would be to get indignant and huffy.

But all I could think in that shocking moment was: “Holy crap! He’s right! Who wants to read a story about me?!

I hadn’t thought of this before! I was so wrapped up in wanting to tell my story and analyzing my life as a detached, outside reporter that I never stopped to think, why was this a story worth telling? Who would want to read this? I forgot to ask myself the first question I always ask …why do I care?

How did I miss that very basic thing? What was different this time?

So I stepped back and reviewed…I remember reading Raina Telgemeier’s Smile (who hasn’t?) and being so moved and engaged by her very personal middle school story, and relating to the same thoughts and feelings at that age. And without hesitation, I jumped into writing/drawing my own middle school epoch…my story. As I pondered my early teens, the words and pictures came flooding out, right there in those spiral Strathmore sketch books. With no forethought. I just started to draw panels…and then myself in those panels, and suddenly it was May 1977 again and there I was at a desk in Memorial Jr High…drawing in my private world and swathed in insecurity.

The memories continued to bubble up and fill the pages. Soon my thoughts moved faster than I could draw, and I began to cram the anecdotes and events of my experience onto single Post-it notes, forcing me to keep them simple and to the point. I honestly, and at times painfully, examined my 13-year-old self (but always with a bent toward humor), with each distant recollection unleashing two or three more. Before I knew it, I had an entire door in my office, ceiling to floor, full of these little orange and yellow flashbacks.

Then I assembled the memory-squares into an arc of my life from that far past summer, and like a puzzle coming together piece-by-piece, the full picture of Short & Skinny emerged.

Then, I sat down and converted the story into comic pages like I saw in other graphic novels for middle schoolers. I had never written a long form comic story (I make two daily newspaper comic strips three or four panels at a time—a very different genre), and the process was sort of scary and exhilarating at the same time. I love learning how to do something new, especially if it combines cartoons and storytelling.

Soon I had 60 rough pages and the story treatment, which was passed along to publishers and before long, BOOM! A sale to Little Brown Books for Young Readers was made. Taa-Dah!

“You wrote a graphic novel memoir? Who wants to read a story about you?!”


For the first time I thought about the “why do I care?” question after the story was written. And it dawned on me:  middle school is this weird, awkward bump in time for everybody. Everybody has that cringe worthy, outcast, ill-fitting, body-conscious period…when you have one foot in childhood fantasies and the other foot slowly making the turn into young adulthood, and nothing you do seems right or normal and you’re filled with doubt. When you are trying to find yourself. Everybody has a story about that time. And Short & Skinny is mine.

Who wants to read a story about me?

I do. Middle school me. I wrote this for middle school me, and all those other kids that feel like I did. In retrospect there’s nothing especially cataclysmic about being short and skinny, but when you are 12, 13 or so, it’s pretty devastating to be the smallest kid in your class. With no end in sight. So I wanted to let that me know it’s going to be ok. That in the end it doesn’t matter how tall or short or fat or slow or dorky or clumsy or different you think you are. It’s about finding your voice. All kids have that hidden voice, that something special just waiting to come out. For me, it was my storytelling voice and how STAR WARS unlocked that back in ’77. And I can only hope that Short & Skinny will be that kind of inspiration too. That being different isn’t a bad thing. As my Mom used to say, “It’s all about what you do with those dancing shoes.”