This is my third summer as an intern with Shout Mouse Press and I have been a Story Coach for the Reach Incorporated books by teens series twice before. I love hearing the students ideas, the way they put their personality into the stories, and helping them through the frustrations and excitement of shaping that idea into a full-blown book.
But this is the first time Shout Mouse has worked with the Latin American Youth Center and the first time I have ever been involved in making a graphic memoir (or any type of comic). When I first learned about this project, I was excited because I love memoirs, but I wasn’t sure if I would be able to be one of the Story Coaches because I don’t speak Spanish and the students speak limited English. Then we had our first meeting...
The first week working on the LAYC graphic memoir project was a whirlwind of emotion. Coming in the first day, I was surrounded by nervous teenagers speaking Spanish. I realized that the language obstacles we were tackling were more pronounced than I had expected. Though many students are proficient in English, others are not. More importantly, I realized that this was a Latinx-centered safe space that we were entering with limited Spanish ability.
We spent the day defining the mission of the collection. The students said they want young people to read their book - to let them know that they can overcome their challenges; they wanted to reach an international audience to redefine the American dream and challenge misperceptions about what it means to come to America, and they also wanted to change the perception of immigrants in the US, to help people understand why they came and that immigrants are what make America great. As we started to get into the work, I felt the excitement I had when I learned about the project rising again.
Fast forward to the next day of workshop when we started with a drawing exercise. We were all much more comfortable by now and our walls were further lowered when cartoonist and workshop leader Jason Rodriguez asked us all to draw a cartoon version of ourselves (I firmly believe mine was the ugliest but then, maybe we all do).
We broke up into small groups to find that the teens who had been asked only to brainstorm story ideas had actually written and printed pages of their personal stories (this is their summer break!). Needless to say, they were excited to get started, albeit understandably nervous about sharing deeply personal stories from their lives. They all had strong, workable stories that came to life in my mind as they read. The writer in me was jumping up and down. The teacher in me was immensely proud. It wouldn’t be right for me to share their raw stories but I highly encourage you to read this collection when it comes out.
The next week, we started moving from story ideas to outlining and shaping our comics and what they would look like drawn out. Some students came in with outlined stories ready to go while others still only had an idea or had trouble narrowing down which scene they wanted to tell from stories that spanned their whole lives. In groups with one comic artist and one story coach, the students shared their progress and we helped them come up with ideas to develop their ideas and represent them visually. It was fascinating to see the different ways the comic artists approached the stories. One student was intent on covering more time in his story than I thought would work, but Jason came up with an idea to use visuals to efficiently portray the important changes over the student’s life in his comic. Comics are a completely new medium for me and, as someone who doesn’t necessarily think visually, it’s inspiring to see the possibilities and experimentation that are opened up by working with the comic artists.
At the end of the week, the students started drawing rough drafts of their graphic memoirs. Their abilities ranged from elaborate manga to stick figures but all of their drawings had personality. I think the incredibly personal nature of their stories and their importance to the students inspires the defined “voice” in their graphic memoirs. I’m really excited to watch these stories shape into a dope literary comic memoir book. Stay tuned, folks. Coming early 2018!