Using Art In My Teen Novels, by Stephen Emond (graphic novelist)
I had always considered myself an artist and had a strong interest in comic strips and comic books, and only in writing my own comics did I come to really appreciate the art of writing.
My first YA novel, Happyface, came about after the slow demise of my comic book series, Emo Boy. I’ll admit, I went into it both bitter and refreshed. I felt like there was no place for me in comics, that my book wasn’t embraced, blah blah blah, sour grapes. Of course, the book had its fans, one of them being the editor that I ended up pitching book ideas to.
When I started working on Happyface it was a new adventure for me. It was a chance to put comics behind me and to become… drumroll… an AUTHOR! Not too far into the process my editor suggested we bring art into the project, and I made this face:
Art? In a book? What if it’s too child-like? What if it gets shelved with COMIC BOOKS? I’d done comics already! I was onto the next thing and strongly against the idea, and my editor was okay with that. We could do text only. If the book didn’t work without art it wasn’t going to be a good book anyway.
Then the more I thought about it, I started to come around. It was for all the wrong reasons but I was suddenly open to the idea. What intrigued me was that the story was written in a first person voice, so we could make it like a blank journal that the main character is hand-writing in. I had the absurd notion that I would hand-write the entire book, that as Happyface enters his downward spiral his handwriting would become manic and messier, that his once relaxed art would become rushed and he’d fill in all the spaces in the margins – stuff you can’t do just with typed text.
However, you can’t edit hand-written text as conveniently as typed text, you can’t simply have it translated for foreign language editions, and you can’t have sloppy handwriting. It’s not just a piece of art – it needs to be a book.
As I started drawing for it, though, I embraced the idea again. As long as we could avoid the comic book racks it could really stand out – a new frontier, a book FULL of illustrations. Not just spot art or random chapter headings but tons of art on each page, text integrated directly into the art! I wasn’t aware of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, which was starting to catch on as I worked on Happyface. My editor sent me a copy of the book and asked for my thoughts on it. I felt like Happyface still stood on it’s own – that it was for a different age group, and the art was more mature and more integrated. We agreed to keep going.
I initially wanted to use illustrations to make my story stand out as a work of art and not just another book on the shelf. My editor wanted to use all of my capabilities since other authors didn’t have the option. It was its own little market. What I learned after releasing the book informed why I use art in all my projects post Happyface.
I’d certainly never thought of or intended for it but Happyface became a big book for reluctant readers – particularly for teen boys, who are generally considered too busy blowing things up in video games to read books. I got emails from people saying their son had read the book three times, and that he never reads ANYTHING. I got emails from kids thanking me for writing it. A lot of reviews pointed to the art in Happyface as a bridge for teens that would generally only read comic books or find dense blocks of words intimidating.
I write for myself, generally. Then I hope my writing can find an audience. To actually build an audience where there wasn’t previously one – to actually get people that don’t read to pick up a book and read – clinched the deal. Thank goodness I used the art. I still want those manic margin-filled pages, though.
In my next article, I’ll talk a bit about how I generate ideas. Thanks for reading!
Stephen Emond’s author website: www.stephenemond.com
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