Author Jo Knowles helps artists tell stories at Vt.’s Center for Cartoon Studies

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Young adult author Jo Knowles works closely with students at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction. This may be surprising, given that Knowles is not a visual artist and has no background in cartooning. But she draws on her background as a writer to help others tell great stories, whether through prose or a good cartoon.

VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Jo Knowles about his writing, published and forthcoming, and his work with visual storytellers and graphic designers at the Center for Cartoon Studies.. Their the conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: James Sturm, the co-founder of the center, contacted and asked you to come visit and work with the students on the storytelling. How was it?

Jo Knowles: I was quite shocked when he invited me to come, because obviously I am neither an illustrator nor a designer. But he explained to me that while the students are all incredibly talented artists, sometimes the part they need help with is the storytelling side, especially the students who are working on longer pieces like graphic novels. or graphics memories.

That’s where I come in. We’ve been talking about character development and world building, and we’ve tried to really get to the heart of a story you’re trying to tell. This stuff applies to all storytelling, whether you do it in prose or comics.

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When James Sturm first came to you with this proposal, did you already have a love for the art of cartooning, or was it a stranger to you? What do you think of cartoons?

I love graphic novels. I’m just a huge fan. One of the workshops I first taught was with Tillie Walden, who is this amazing graphic novelist, and I had actually worked with her when she was a student in the program. She wrote her graphic memoirs.

Then they asked us to teach a class together, and I just felt, “What? I can’t teach that, I can’t do a graphic novel! But again, it really comes down to the story. But I stay, when I go through theses and student projects, I just sit there in awe. For example, what am I going to say to this student, other than “You are awesome!” It’s just an amazing gift to be able to do what they do.

The drawing is just amazing to me. I think there are times when you can read a huge article on, say, politics, and then you can see a one-panel political cartoon that sums up all those words, in one picture. It’s quite fascinating.

Yes! There’s a real art of simplifying something and showing the complexity of it through the pictures, instead of the other way around, you know, of trying to explain something really complicated just by the text.

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I want to talk a bit about your own work and come to what you were talking about earlier: what could you bring to these students to help them with their stories? I just rummaged through your latest book, which is now in paperback, called Where is the heart.

There is this brilliant literary apparatus that you use at the beginning. We discover the beginnings of life and the friendship between the main protagonist of the book, Rachel, and her friend Micah. And in the opening, they’re neighbors, they’re only six at the time, and they have this game of hide and seek that they play. And, huddled together, like little kids sometimes do, they profess this innocent love for each other, you know, and Micah asks Rachel to marry him. It’s such a cute moment, they are holding hands, it’s very sweet.

But then Rachel mentions in one line now – she’s 12, as she recounts this moment – that she knows the marriage to Micah will never actually take place. We’re not immediately sure why, but that line was imbued with so much potential that it left its mark on me as the narrative unfolded. Without revealing the secret, I wonder if this kind of literary hook, if you will, was baited from the start as deliberately as it seemed to me?

Yes! I think even before I started writing the book I knew what the main conflict with Rachel would be. This story was actually inspired by a story of my son and his best friend, when they got engaged when they were little in our church. I am always looking for opportunities in my own life, and how they will help illustrate a highlight of my fiction. And at that point, I remember how excited they were.

But, as in the book, it became clear as I got older that this would never happen. And it is this feeling: how to remain friends, when the going gets tough? I think there’s this knowledge that kids have where they know something is never going to work, and the adults in their lives might not be ready to tune in just yet.

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Where is the heart is sort of a coming-of-age story, but it’s a book that also deals with economic inequality, financial insecurity, perhaps surprising topics to cover in young adult fiction. Why did you think Rachel’s worries about her parents’ financial problems might resonate with younger readers?

We try to protect our children from difficult things. Sometimes I will hear – from parents in particular – that I wrote something too difficult for a child, that they are not ready to hear about this sort of thing. And I think these are the conversations we need to have with kids to prepare them for life, and all the unexpected things that can happen.

Wouldn’t you prefer your child to first experience conflict like this in a book and learn how another character handled that conflict?

But in this case, it’s one of my most autobiographical books. I was much older when my parents went through financial insecurity. Our bank seized our house and we had to move out, and that was very painful for all of us, obviously.

I wanted to write about this experience because often there is this shame attached to financial insecurity and there is a lot of invisibility. Often, no one has a clue that this is happening. And it is this stress that children carry, in silence. I wanted to explore this, in the hope that the children who read the book, who might recognize themselves, will feel less alone and will feel seen and see that there can be hope too.

I wonder if the last pandemic year has changed your own perspective on writing, or maybe how you might approach storytelling, when we’re hoping COVID-19 is behind us?

I have a book coming out which is a companion novel for Where is the heart. It’s called Meant to be and that’s the little sister, Ivy’s story. And while I was going through the copy edits – I had written the book before COVID started – and the kids hug and share drinks and food and do all the things we’ve learned not to. not to do. And I was like, “Is that historical fiction now? Is it even relevant? How are we going to move forward with the stories? Do we recognize the pandemic as a memory that children have?”

I do not have the answer. I think we’ve all been through that kind of change, and really, that kind of fear. I hugged one of my best friends yesterday for the first time and it was incredibly powerful. I just wonder, when I even describe these kinds of moments in my books, if it will be different and better felt than in the past. I feel, and I hope, that we will never take these moments for granted again. And I wonder if that will also be reflected in how we write these moments.

Do you have questions, comments or advice? Send us a message or tweet Morning edition host Mitch Wertlieb @mwertlieb.

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