Faye Rapoport DesPres

Writers in the Trenches: Graphic Novelist Jonathan Todd on Finding His Niche, Landing a Publishing Contract, and Boston Kids Comics Fest


Jonathan Todd

Jonathan Todd is the author and illustrator of the forthcoming middle-grade graphic novel Timid (Scholastic 2021). Todd is also co-founder of the Boston Kids Comics Fest. A graduate of the Solstice MFA in Creative Writing program, Todd lives in Boston with his wife and two kids.

I met Jonathan when we both served as panelists for an alumni event focused on the publishing experience. He was warm and friendly, and his enthusiasm for his work and for meeting other writers was contagious. It’s a pleasure to feature him in this series.

FRD: How did your writing journey begin? Were you a visual artist before becoming a “writer”?

JT: If my memory serves me correctly, I didn’t realize I was a writer until my father pointed it out when I was in about the third grade. I was having trouble with a writing assignment, and my father looked at me and said in the parent-teacher conference something like, “you can write: when you draw your cartoon characters saying something, that’s writing.” That realization gave me confidence that I, in fact, was a writer, in addition to being a cartoonist.

I did always see myself as a cartoonist since the age of eight, but as I developed as a cartoonist, I knew that cartooning was niche visual artform that didn’t get the respect of fine art. And in truth, cartooning/sequential art is its own artform that arguably shares more in common with graphic design than fine art and illustration, in that the images need only be clear symbols of people and things versus realistic visual representations to be effective cartoons.  For example, I could draw my whole graphic novel using stick figures, and you could still understand my book. The Mona Lisa just wouldn’t work as a stick figure. And you would call that rendition a Mona Lisa cartoon.

FRD: You are often identified as a children’s author/illustrator, although you mentioned working on a graphic memoir. What drew you first and foremost to the children’s genre?

JT: I’ve always related well to children, meaning I understand how they see the world, because I still can see the world that way; seeing the world as a third- through sixth-grader is my default. Part of my love of this perspective must spring from that being the age I really got into cartooning. And since I’m still really into cartooning, I retain the same perspective I had when I became a cartoonist.

Secondly, I became attracted to capturing this age group in literature after observing the passion of fifth graders when I worked as an after-school worker. Two boys, in particular, were so intense when it came to playing and arguing, that I thought this passion would be interesting to show in literature.

Thirdly, after sixth grade, I remember being very lonely, and I had a hunch that some middle-schoolers feel a similar loneliness today because they don’t feel like they fit in. I wanted to create a book—a type of companion—which would encourage lonely kids that someone has been through something similar and made it through okay.

FRD: Tell us about your current work-in-progress, Timid.

JT: Timid is a realistic, children’s graphic novel about a middle-class, African-American boy in the 1980s who is struggling to find his

Todd published early versions
of his graphic novel in zines, such as the one pictured here.

place at a largely white middle school in an affluent suburb of Boston. The protagonist, Cecil, was the only black kid in the sixth grade at his Christian elementary school in Florida and doesn’t know how to make friends with the small group of black kids who are part of a busing program at his new school.

FRD: What about your graphic memoir? What do you find to be similar or different about the two genres?

JT: I only have written one draft of my graphic memoir, so at this point I’m not sure if I’ll continue it if my children’s graphic novel finds readers who may seek more kids’ graphic novels from me. But interestingly, it was work on my graphic memoir that gave me the name of my kid’s graphic novel. Originally, I was going to call my graphic memoir Timid, but when I was about to submit my kids’ fictional, graphic novel to Scholastic, I didn’t have a title I liked, so I stole the title of my graphic memoir!

While I know less about creative non-fiction than middle-grade fiction, I am learning that in children’s fiction—at least with my awesome editor—you have to balance the negative statements of characters with responsible responses of other characters. For example, in real life, someone may have insulted you as a kid, and no one may have been there to defend you against that nastiness. When I have created realistic scenes in which someone may say something vile—but realistic—my editor has suggested I have someone in the scene who counteracts the negative statement. I understand how you want to protect young readers, but that aspect of editing a book for children was eye-opening for me; I thought the best practice would be to write the scene as realistically as possible, and that would mean that often people weren’t around to defend you—and that’s what made the experience so bad—and memorable.

As far as similarities, creative non-fiction is essentially what I try to mimic in my realistic, children’s graphic fiction. In my graphic fiction, I want to make readers feel that they are experiencing the world with Cecil. And when I draw a scene of creative non-fiction, that’s also my goal: to help readers feel that they are in the scene too.

FRD: We were recently co-panelists at the Solstice MFA Creative Writing program, talking about the publishing journey. Putting yourself out there and networking played a big role in your landing a publishing contract — can you explain?

JT: The best advice I received during my quest for a book contract was from a book by Cheryl B. Klein: Second Sight: An Editor’s Talks on Writing, Revising, and Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults. In it, Ms. Klein suggests finding books that are similar to the one you wrote, then identifying their editors. And it makes sense: find an editor who edits books similar to yours and pitch your book to him/her at his/her publishing house. So that’s what I did: I discovered Cece Bell’s middle-grade graphic memoir El Deafo about a girl who probably felt like she didn’t fit in. I strongly identified with the protagonist and the intimate voice of the book. I found Cece on Twitter and asked her who her editor was. She told me Susan Van Metre, who worked for Abrams at the time. Susan was my project’s first editor, but once Susan left Abrams, I met Scholastic’s Cassandra Pelham Fulton (after my author hero Jarrett Krosoczska told me about a graphic novel contest sponsored by Graphix/Scholastic, which Cassandra was involved with). I wasn’t eligible for the contest, but I met with Cassandra when I was in New York City during a comics festival. I eventually pitched Timid to Cassandra, who acquired it.

Beyond the practical step of finding an editor who edits the kind of books you write, I thought it was important that I learn formal creative writing to make sure my story was in the narrative structure book editors recognized. I, for one, did not find book writing intuitive. I also found it helpful to befriend published authors, such as children’s author Tom Angleberger and the children’s/YA faculty at Solstice. These author friends read draft after draft of my chapter summaries and gave me expert feedback. I also have to thank my literary agents Denis Kitchen and John Lind whose coaching converted publisher interest in my project into an actual contract.

FRD: How do you support your writing life? Do you work at a non-writing job?

JT: By day, I am a professional writer and editorial director for a university marketing department. I direct the editorial content for a university’s alumni magazine and the web content for the marketing of its academic programs.

Credit: Jonathan Todd

FRD: Tell us about your involvement in the Boston Kids Comics Fest.

JT: I envisioned an indie, kids’ comics festival as a one-time festival in Boston that showcased comics that were appropriate for children aged 5 to about 12. I am greatly influenced by alternative comics, which is a movement that strives to depict all kinds of topics through comics. The upside is that you get ground-breaking work such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus. But the downside is that at alternative comics festivals—fairs where cartoonists sell directly to the public, as in a craft fair—the work is often not kid-friendly. But the problem is kids like comics, so cartoonists with kids, like me, struggle in wanting to bring their kids to comics festivals but may be wary about the images and content their kids may see at alternative comics fests.

I also was interested in hosting a mini-festival to motivate myself to make more progress on drawing my graphic novel (before Timid was acquired). I respond well to deadlines, and a great aspect about the many comics festivals that occur around the country is that they give you natural deadlines to produce new zines that can be used to serialize a graphic novel. With limited funds to spend on personal travel to other cities, I figured I could start a new festival right in Boston where I could present my latest work to the public. Well, the first festival got bigger than I expected so I had to devote my time to the co-administration of it and didn’t have time to have my own table at the festival!

While I co-organized the first Boston Kids Comics Fest with The Million Year Picnic (https://www.themillionyearpicnic.com) comic shop owner Tony Davis and former library director Meena Jain, I am grateful that Tony, Meena and school librarian Liza Halley are organizing future Boston Kids Comics Fests. The next one will be on April 27 at Pine Manor College: https://bostonkidscomicsfest.wordpress.com.

FRD: I used Maus as required reading in one of my undergraduate courses; it’s an incredible work. I look forward to seeing Timid in print. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me and for sharing tips and ideas, as well as information about the upcoming Boston Kids Comics Fest. You can read more about Jonathan and his protagonist, Cecil hall, here: https://cecilhall.tumblr.com/.