Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

May is Graphic Novel Month! Part One

Share |
May is Graphic Novel Month! Part One

A few years ago, I had the idea to write a series of stories about different girls/women around the world and throughout the ages who had disguised themselves as men in order to achieve a particular goal, for example, evading marriage, escaping slavery and so on. When I submitted my outline to Kids Can Press, editor Stacey Roderick suggested that I consider shaping the manuscript as a graphic novel. I was intrigued.

Although familiar with the genre, I had only read a few graphic novels, including the classics Maus, Riel and Persepolis. When I began digging into the literature, I was surprised to discover the varieties of subjects, moods and tones, illustration styles and levels of sophistication. Captivated by the versatility of the genre, I began reworking my manuscript as a graphic novel, and when artist Willow Dawson added her amazing illustrative skills, the stories took off. No Girls Allowed: Tales of Daring Women Dressed as Men For Love, Freedom and Adventure was born!

To celebrate May as Graphic Novel Month, I'm interviewing four "graphic novel" creators: two in Part One of this article (Ashley Spires and Paul Keery) and two in Part Two (Glen Downey and Daniel Lafrance).

Even though I split the article into two parts, I still didn't have room for all the questions I wanted to ask. Please write in with any of your own questions and comments for these amazing creators!

ASHLEY SPIRES is the writer and illustrator of the popular Binky Adventure series of junior graphic novels and numerous picture books. She lives in Ladner, BC.

SUSAN: Can you tell me something about how your popular Binky the Space Cat graphic novel series came to be?

ASHLEY: Binky came from a drawing I did for my nephew for Christmas one year. I originally wrote it as a picture book, and it was always the plan for me to illustrate it — after all I'm an illustrator first, writer second. I had never thought of myself as a comic artist, so even though I loved to play around with comics in my personal sketchbooks, I had never entertained the idea of doing it professionally. It was my editor who thought it was a great fit for a graphic novel. The story itself stayed the same — in fact it was the story and the humour that caused my editor, Tara Walker, to suggest that I make it a graphic novel for older kids — however, it did require more text. The book went from 32 pages to 64. But as it seemed a more natural fit for the story itself, adding more wasn't challenging. And the length allowed for so many more sight gags (cat farts...) than a picture book ever would. But writing a graphic novel required many more illustration notes that any book I had ever done before as so much of the story happens in the pictures. Creating those notes and figuring out where to put sound effects (and how to spell them) was difficult.

SUSAN: What's the biggest challenge you face when creating a graphic novel?

ASHLEY: Besides coming up with a great new story? Probably the page breakdown and panel formatting. Sometimes it takes a while to make each layout unique while serving the 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?  

ASHLEY:  I suppose that would be personal for every author/illustrator but I found the switch over from picture books to be very natural. I read a lot of comics growing up which I think helps me picture the action in a storyboard format. We all read pictures before we read words so I find it's a very instinctual method of storytelling.

SUSAN: Would you ever be interested in creating a nonfiction graphic novel?
ASHLEY: I would be open to it, provided it was something that had a good element of humour. I've never really considered it though. For the most part I'm drawn to stories that are beyond the realm of the possible (space cats, pirates, animals that dress like Liberace, a Sasquatch, to name a few) so non-fiction seems like a odd fit for me.

SUSAN: What are some children's graphic novels, either fiction or nonfiction, that you'd recommend? 

ASHLEY: I love Matt and Jennifer Holm's work, both Babymouse and Squish. Also my 9-year-old stepson loves Doug TenNapel's work. Jill Thompson's Scary Godmother is tough to beat in terms of artwork. She blows my mind. And for slightly older kids, Jane, The Fox and Me is just beautiful. 

PAUL KEERY is the author of Maple Leaf Forever: the story of Canada’s Confederation and Canada At War, a graphic history of World War Two. He is currently at work on a history of Canada’s constitution for young people.

SUSAN: Paul, what sparked your idea to write a book about World War Two?

PAUL: I'm a high school history teacher, and I noticed that military history got short shrift in the textbooks I use. I wanted to create a book that could be used in schools and that a general audience would also enjoy. I think very highly of the Canadian military and its accomplishments, and I wanted to remind Canadians what we have done militarily in our history.

SUSAN: Why did you decide to create Canada at War as a graphic novel?

PAUL: This was an idea that Mike Wyatt and I developed together. We had worked together on two books for JackFruit Press, and Mike thought that a graphic novel history of World War Two would be a great book. I agreed when he suggested it to me. We pitched it to various publishers until Douglas and McIntyre accepted our pitch.

SUSAN: Can you briefly describe the process of combining your text with Michael Wyatt's superb illustrations? 

PAUL: I created an outline for the book, and then did a breakdown for each chapter, indicating what I felt needed to be in each chapter of the book. Mike took the chapter breakdowns and laid out the book, doing rough art layouts for each page of the book. After I dialogued each page, Mike finished the art and then coloured the book. Mike did a magnificent job!

SUSAN: I agree! Paul, what were the biggest challenges you faced while writing your graphic novel?

PAUL: Trying to fit everything that was essential to the history of the war in without overwhelming the book and the readers. There was so much fascinating material that I discovered in my research that I could have written a book for each chapter of Canada At War.  For Mike, it was the sheer volume of pages that he had to complete; he spent the better part of a year working on the book.

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? 

PAUL: Chester Brown's biography, Louis Riel, is a good graphic novel about Canadian history, and I’d recommend C. M. Butzer’s Gettysburg — the Graphic Novel to anyone interested in the American Civil War and Abraham Lincoln. For lighter fare, I’d suggest DC Comics’ new Batman ’66 graphic novel, which is a collection of stories based on the 1966 TV series that starred Adam West — it’s a hoot! Also, a reprint of the adventures of Canada’s first super-heroine, Nelvana of the Northern Lights, will soon be released. Though the stories were created in the 1940s, they’re still engaging tales of Canada in wartime and let us read some of the stories that readers enjoyed during World War Two.


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,


Related item from our archives

Related reads