Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

May is Graphic Novel Month! Part Two

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May is Graphic Novel Month! Part Two

To celebrate May as Graphic Novel Month, I'm interviewing four "graphic novel" creators. In Part One of this blog, I spoke to Ashley Spires and Paul Keery. Here, in Part Two, I'm very pleased to chat with Glen Downey and Daniel Lafrance.

And, as you know, you are welcome to write in with any of your own questions and comments.

DANIEL LAFRANCE is a professional storyboard artist who has published many short comics. War Brother (Annick Press), co-written by Sharon E. MacKay and Daniel and illustrated by Daniel, is his first graphic novel. Originally from Quebec, Daniel now lives in Toronto with his wife and son.

SUSAN:  You illustrated an adaptation of the YA novel War Brothers by Sharon McKay. Can you tell me a little bit about how you illustrated War Brothers, which was first published as a YA novel by Sharon McKay?

DANIEL: I adapted War Brothers directly from the novel, not from a script.  Through consultations with Sharon, I edited the novel and created thumbnails of each page — planning layouts for the book.  Then I drew my rough pages using a Cintic and a software called Sketchbook Pro. I showed Sharon and the editor the book in that format for feedback.  I drew the final art on paper and did the colouring in Photoshop.

SUSAN: How does working from another creator's written material compare to being the sole creator of a graphic novel?

DANIEL: It's not as stressful. It's not just me on the page. The pressure is equally shared.
SUSAN: What's the biggest challenge you face when creating a  graphic novel?

DANIEL: Every story is different, and for me, the challenge is finding an artistic style that works best with that particular story.

SUSAN: What advice would you give other writers/illustrators wanting to create graphic novels for children? In your opinion, can a creator move easily to this type of work if one both writes and illustrates? 

DANIEL: I would ask: what is your motive? Producing a graphic novel is a ton of work. Months and months of solitary work . For me, working on a book that could help raise awareness to a particular social issue made it all worthwhile. My suggestion to writers and illustrators who want to try sequential storytelling would be to first read Will Eisner's "Comics and Sequential Art." Then try your hands at some short stories before starting a graphic novel.
SUSAN: What are some graphic novels, either fiction or nonfiction, that you'd recommend to kids, or teachers, or parents who want to keep their kids reading?

DANIEL: My list is for children ages 13 and up:

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
Pride of Baghdad by B. K. Vaughan and N. Henrichon
Maus by Art Spiegelman
I Never Liked You by Chester Brown
Blankets by Craig Thompson
Yossel by Joe Kubert
Palestine by Joe Sacco
The Photographer by Guibert, Lefevre and Lemercier
Two Generals by Scott Chantler

GLEN DOWNEY is an award-winning children’s writer, educator, and academic, and currently serves as the Chair of English and Drama at The York School in Toronto. He is also the founder of Comics in Education, a website dedicated to fostering an appreciation and understanding of visual narrative across the K-12 curriculum.

SUSAN:  As well as being a children's book author and graphic novelist, you're also an educator. Which came first: your interest in creating graphic novels or the drive to use them as a vehicle for fostering literacy development in kids, especially reluctant readers?

GLEN: When I was a child, I wanted to be a writer, in large part because I loved reading. I was especially drawn to comics, mystery novels, Choose Your Own Adventure stories, and the manuals and game books of fantasy role-playing games. I read these long after my peers had moved on to other kinds of books, or their interest in reading had waned. Seeing the application of comics as a means of fostering literacy development in children and adolescents came much later for me.

SUSAN: Can you describe how you came to write your first graphic novel? 

GLEN: I was already writing for Rubicon Publishing when I was approached about a graphic novel series called TIMELINE. It was aimed at middle-school students, specifically reluctant readers, and they asked if I'd be interested in putting together some ideas for titles. At that time, my eldest son was fascinated by Pompeii. It just so happened that the museum in Ottawa was featuring the plaster casts from Pompeii in a travelling exhibition, and so we went to go and see them. After that, it was clear. I had to write a story about the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius! The graphic novel was called Fire Mountain, a reference to how the ancient Romans would have referred to it.
SUSAN: What's the biggest challenge you face when writing a graphic novel?

GLEN: The biggest challenge is to design the story in such a way that an artist will feel comfortable drawing it. There’s nothing worse for an illustrator than to be given a manuscript and immediately sense that the author has no understanding of the story as a visual narrative. I find with the artists that have drawn my stories, however, that about three-quarters of the time they’ll do what I expect — which is awesome — and one-quarter of the time they’ll do what I don’t expect — which is even better!

SUSAN: How is writing a graphic novel different than writing a book of fiction for kids? Other than the visuals, what else do you keep in mind when you're writing a graphic novel manuscript?

GLEN: I tend to really focus on dialogue that works and framing visual sequences that make sense. In a novel, I might linger for a page over describing how a character reacts to the gloomy weather outside his window. In a graphic novel, I know that so much of this is going to be said in the illustration. Here, any sort of narrative (like what might be put in a caption box) needs to be kept to a minimum. I have to trust that the reader can make meaning out of the combination of the verbal and the visual.

SUSAN: Glen, you serve as a regular reviewer for the graphic novel division of Publishers Weekly. What do you look for in a really fantastic graphic novel?

GLEN: I think the key to being an effective reviewer, especially of visual narratives, is not to go looking for anything. The reviewer needs to be open to what the writer/artist or collaborative team has done and then to see whether the way they have collectively told the story is impactful. In my experience, it helps if the writer and artist are fearless, and willing to venture down visual narrative alleyways that others might fear to tread. Those who don’t want to go down such alleyways are often too cautious or conservative to be impactful.

SUSAN: What are some graphic novels, either fiction or nonfiction, that you'd recommend to kids, or teachers, or parents who want to keep their kids reading?

GLEN: I have lots of recommendations on our website,, but generally speaking it depends on the age of the reader and his or her interests. Teachers thinking about using graphic novels with their students should try to read one or more of the widely accepted classics of the genre, including the likes of Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Alan Moore and Dave GibbonsWatchmen and Will Eisner’s A Contract with God. Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics is also a must read. For kids, the Bone books by Jeff Smith are great, and in the classroom, teachers have really enjoyed the likes of Oxford’s >Boldprint Graphic Novels series, or Scholastic’s> Graphic Poetry. Both of these are award-winning series developed by Rubicon Publishing.

SUSAN: Thank you, Daniel and Glen, for chatting with me!

Susan Hughes is an award-winning author of children's books — both fiction and non-fiction — including The Island Horse, Off to Class, Case Closed?, No Girls Allowed and Earth to Audrey. She is also an editor, journalist and manuscript evaluator. Susan lives in Toronto. Visit her website,


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