Books·My Life in Books

Raina Telgemeier: 11 books that changed my life

Which Canadian cartoonist does the bestselling graphic novelist credit with changing her life?
Graphic novelist Raina Telgemeier has had several bestsellers including Smile and Drama. (Bria John/CBC)

Raina Telgemeier is a regular on bestseller lists for middle grade graphic novels like Drama, Smile and Sisters. In Ghosts, Telgemeier is as funny, compassionate and inventive as ever, creating a protagonist whose dread of starting over in a new town and new school is comforting in its familiarity.

Below, Telgemeier shares 11 books that have shaped her life — from the Canadian cartoonist she credits with teaching her everything about life to the Japanese wartime comic that fundamentally changed her life.

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O'Brien

"It's one of the first books that I remember reading with my mom. She read it to me out loud. I was probably about 6 years old. We had just seen the film that is based on that book, The Secret of Nim. I liked the movie, but when I read the book I felt like it was a totally different experience. The story was very different and it was much more mature and deep and I just fell in love with the language with that book."

In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson by Bette Bao Lord

"This is a story about a girl whose family immigrated from China to America and found herself in Brooklyn, not speaking any English, in the 1950s. It's historical fiction and takes place around the time Jackie Robinson was playing for the New York Dodgers. She gets to sort of know her classmates and American culture through relating to Jackie Robinson and learning to love baseball and play baseball with her friends. In the book she gets to meet Jackie Robinson at the end. It's just a beautiful story about learning to fit in when you're a fish out of water. It also talks about her early childhood in China and her relatives and the structure of family life and contrast that with growing up with Brooklyn and the different cultures that she experiences. It's a really touching story. It has really charming illustrations as well. They were pencil drawings in black and white, but I could see the whole book in my mind in full colour. I like books that paint pictures in the reader's mind."

Just As Long As We're Together by Judy Blume

"It's a story about three friends, two friends who have known each other forever and a new girl who enters the scene and how it sort of complicates everything. I think that there were just so many parallels that I could draw with my own life. And the main character feels like she's overweight and unworthy of love and her parents are splitting up. She's just dealing with this stuff that it's hard to deal with at any time in your life, but she's 12 and she's got braces and can't quite get her life in order. I felt like the end of this book wasn't completely resolved. The characters go back to being friends with each other but they're not best, happy friends at the end of the story. There was something definitely true about that. Relationships don't get resolved and everything's fine forever. They're always going to be a little bit complicated. I think Judy Blume's work was great at making you feel like you're not alone. Someone else understands you."

Marlys by Lynda Barry

"I started reading her work when I was about 12. In the early 1990s, YA literature had not really exploded to what it currently is on the market today. You kind of graduated from reading The Babysitters Club to V.C. Andrews back then. Lynda Barry for me just fit the bill completely of what teen angst look like. Her characters are so troubled, they're so problematic, but they're so endearing. I read her a little bit in the paper, but mostly I read them in collected volumes. Her comics often are about kids in school who hate their teachers. They're about kids throwing tantrums and feeling like they aren't heard or understood and how adults are just inscrutable sometimes. Her characters are ugly and pockmarked and so flawed, but there's a reassurance there that, maybe your life sucks, but these characters lives suck even more. And they also have a resilience. Characters who persevere in the face of struggle and these were such a comfort to me a as teenager, but they were also so funny. I think Lynda Barry has one of the strongest voices when it comes to writing dialogue and she just has a sharp ear for the way people talk, and articulate and free associate. I just loved how she listened and it made me become a listener too."

Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson

"When I encountered Calvin and Hobbes as a kid, it was the most beautiful comic I had ever seen and the funniest. A lot of it went over my head, but because it was comics I was able to get something from his work that worked for me as a 9-year-old and worked for my dad. I could read those comics over and over again and get something different out of them every single time. I continued to read them as I grew older and would often go, 'What is it that Calvin's talking about? I'm going to look that word up in the dictionary.' It's a comic that makes you smarter. It makes you care about the world a little more and empathize with people. The play between those two characters was so beautiful."

For Better or For Worse by Lynn Johnston

"The comic felt like I was looking through a looking glass at the real world. The Patterson children were very close in age to my siblings and I, so it felt like she was writing my life, my thoughts in my head and my concerns and my problems.

"I joke that everything I learned about life I learned from For Better or For Worse because it had that strong of an impact on me. I read that comic every day, until it ended when I was an adult. I felt like I had grown up with the Patterson's and like they were my next door neighbours and closest friends. When the comic went away, it was so disorienting not to know what everyone was up to. It's like they all died. I think that comic alone had the biggest impact on me as far as being a comic artist, writer and storyteller. The work that I do is not the same format, but I've always felt like I have a similar sense of humour and I pull from a similar emotional place as Lynn Johnston did. I feel this really intense kinship with her and her work. A few years ago, I got to meet her for the first time and it was just extraordinary to be able to talk to the person who had created something that meant so much to me. I geeked out and fan-girled her and she ended up blurbing one of my books. I feel like that might've been the greatest day of my life."

Animal Vegetable Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

"Barbara Kingsolver is most known for her fiction work, but this is the story about her own life and how she moved from Arizona to Virginia with her family and decided to like eat nothing but what she grew in her garden or sourced locally or traded with people for an entire year. I've always had this fascination with ideas like that — growing your own food and having a garden — and I'm a city kid so I never had much of a chance to do anything like that. When I lived in New York, I had a tiny patio where I was able to grow a few cherry tomatoes and some basil and to me that was a thrill. The idea of gardening and being successful at it has always appealed to me. Her take on every part of this experience, I just found hilarious - like the idea of her family getting irritated with her because they couldn't just go to the grocery store and buy the usual junk food they were used to eating. I love her turn of phrase, the way she captures her families and their personalities, they just seemed like people I wanted to know. People I wanted to be friends with. I find that I will like a writer's fiction work, but then I read their memoir and I fall in love with that even more."

A Girl From Yamhill by Beverly Cleary

"A Girl From Yamhill by Beverly Cleary is about what the author's life was like when she was born, who were family was and what her silly experiences were. I loved the Ramona series and I loved reading about Cleary's life. Often times, you could see how real experiences have shaped her characters' lives and where her characters came from. Always at the end of the day, this was a regular kid who became a regular adult and then that regular adult turned into someone who wrote these fantastic books that meant so much to so many people. I've always been fascinated in the authors behind the work as much as the work itself. I think that probably gets a little bit as to why I write autobiography and memoir. I find people so fascinating."

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

"I chose A Walk in the Woods for this list because it was the first Bill Bryson I read. Here's someone who is writing about his own life, the world around him and finding a way to do it that just makes me laugh hysterically. He's so dry and has a very silly way of putting words together that I just find so charming. I read Bill Bryson any chance I get."

Scott Pilgrim by Bryan Lee O'Malley

"Bryan Lee O'Malley and I are from the same generation of cartoonists. We were both in the webcomics and indie comics scene at the same time. I met him the same year that Scott Pilgrim was first published and felt I was in on this cool secret that others didn't know about. I took one look at it and said, "This is for me. It looks so cool. It reads so cool." The way that his stories move, I find to be just extraordinary. Because we were making comics at the same time, his work has had an influence on me in a way that very few artists of my generation did. I just studied it. I couldn't wait until the next volume came out. I ran to see the movie the second it was in theatres. It felt like reading Scott Pilgrim the middle it was published you were in the middle of something, you were in the middle of this experience. Getting to be part of that was so much fun, getting to cheer on someone I knew. At the end of the day, it came down to his art and storytelling which is top notch."

Barefoot Gen by Keiji Nakazawa

"Keiji Nakazawa is a manga artist from Japan who was serializing this story in the 1970s and then it was published in English in the 1980s. It is almost the true story of his living through the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. He wrote a 10-volume graphic novel about it. I read this book when I was 10. It was intense. This is not a cheerful story. It's got cheerful characters, but the setting is wartime Japan and there's imperialism going on and bombing and so much at stake. But the characters are still cheerful and optimistic and then when the bomb falls and half of Gen's family dies. He then spends the rest of his life struggling with that reality and to see first hand the destruction of his town and just the horror that war brings into your life. Talk about empathy, I had never even considered the idea of war before I read this book. All of a sudden I was like, 'This is so brutal and horrible. I can't believe this is real and yet it is. I'm seeing it through this character's eyes.'

"I went through a nightmare of depression after that and felt it was my responsibility to tell everybody about this book and relay what had happened. I was in fifth grade and I started writing book reports and trying to tell my teacher and my friends about it. Then, a few years later the war in the Middle East broke out and I could not believe this was still happening and going on. I thought if everyone read this book, none of this would happen. It became this mission statement of mine and I read my copy of the book so much the cover fell off. My friend borrowed it, read it and taped it back together for me. This is the book that really changed my life and taught me the power of comics. Taught me that comics, which I thought were fun and delightful and entertaining, were actually one of the most powerful mediums to tell a story. I still carry that philosophy with me, that comics can do so much. There's so much power in them."


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