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Author Jo Knowles Helps Artists Tell Stories At Vt.'s Center For Cartoon Studies

A woman holds storyboards before an audience as illustrations hang on the walls behind her.
Center for Cartoon Studies, courtesy
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Young-adult author Jo Knowles works closely with students at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction. That may be surprising, given that Knowles is not a visual artist and has no experience in cartooning. But she draws on her experience as a writer to help others tell good stories, whether through prose or a good cartoon.

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

Mitch Wertlieb: James Sturm, the center's co-founder, reached out and asked you to come visit and work with the students on storytelling. What was that like?

Jo Knowles: I was pretty shocked when he invited me to come, because obviously I’m not an illustrator or cartoonist. But he explained to me that, while the students are all incredibly talented artists, sometimes the part that they need help with is the actual storytelling side of it, especially students who are working on longer pieces like graphic novels or graphic memoirs.

So that's where I come in. We talked about character development and world building, and trying to really get to the heart of a story that you're trying to tell. Those kinds of things apply to all storytelling, no matter if you're doing it through prose or through comics.

More from VPR: In 'Off Season,' Cartoonist James Sturm Explores A Troubled Marriage In Troubled Times

When James Sturm first came to you with this proposal, did you already have a love of the art of cartooning, or was it foreign to you? How did you feel about cartoons?

I love graphic novels. I’m just such a huge fan. One of the workshops that I taught the first time was with Tillie Walden, who's this amazing graphic novelist, and I had actually worked with her when she was a student in the program. She was writing her graphic memoir.

Then they asked us to teach a course together, and I just felt, “What? I can't teach this, I don't know how to make a graphic novel!” But again, it really did come down to the story. But I still, when I review student theses and projects, I just sit there in awe. Like, what am I going to tell this student, other than “You’re brilliant!” It's just such an incredible gift to be able to do what they do.

Cartooning is just amazing to me. I think there are some times you can read a huge article about, say, politics, and then you can see a one-panel political cartoon that sums up all of those words, in one image. It's quite fascinating.

A slide on storyboards and storytelling
Credit Jo Knowles, courtesy
A slide on storyboards and storytelling from author Jo Knowles' presentation at the Center for Cartoon Studies.

Yes! There's a real fine art to simplifying something and then showing the complexity of it through the images, instead of the other way around, you know, trying to explain something that's really complicated just through text.

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I want to talk a little bit about your own work and get to what you were talking about earlier: what could you bring to these students to help them with their narratives? I’ve just been delving into your latest book, that's out now in paperback, called Where The Heart Is.

There's this brilliant literary device that you employ at the start. We learn about the early life and friendship between the book's main protagonist, Rachel, and her friend Micah. And in the opening they’re neighbors, they're just six years old at the time, and they have this game of hide and seek that they're playing. And, huddled together, as 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 hold hands, it's very sweet.

The cover of author Jo Knowles novel Where The Heart Is
Credit Candlewick Press
Author Jo Knowles discusses her young adult novel Where The Heart Is.

But then, Rachel mentions in just one line now — she’s 12, as she recounts this moment — that she knows that marriage to Micah will never actually happen. We don't immediately find out why, but that line was infused with so much potential meaning that it stuck with me as the narrative moved forward. While not revealing the secret, I wonder if that kind of literary hook, if you will, was baited early on as purposefully as it seemed to me?

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

But, as in the book, it became clear as they got older that this was never going to happen. And it's that feeling of: how do we remain friends, when things get complicated? I think there's this knowledge that kids have where they know something is never going to work out, and the adults in their lives may just not be ready to tune into that yet.

More From VPR: Vt. Author Kekla Magoon Wins National Award For Young Adult Novels On Civil Rights History, Racism

Where The Heart Is is a kind of coming-of-age story, but it's a book that also deals with economic inequality, financial insecurity, maybe surprising topics to tackle in young adult fiction. Why did you feel that Rachel's worries over her parents financial troubles might resonate with younger readers?

We try to protect our kids from hard things. Sometimes I will hear — from parents, in particular — that I've written something that's too difficult for a child, that they're not ready to hear about this kind of thing. And I think these are the conversations that we need to be having with kids to help prepare them for life, and all the unexpected things that can happen.

Wouldn't you rather have your child experience conflicts like this in a book first, and learn how another character dealt with that conflict?

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

I wanted to write about that experience because a lot of times, there's this shame attached to financial insecurity and there's a lot of invisibility. A lot of times, no one has any idea that it's happening. And it's this stress that kids are carrying, silently. I wanted to explore that, in the hopes that kids who read the book, who might recognize themselves, will feel less alone and feel seen and see that there can be hope, too.

Luke Howard, right, hosts a visit to the Center for Cartoon Studies by author Jo Knowles.
Credit Center for Cartoon Studies, courtesy
Luke Howard, right, hosts a visit to the Center for Cartoon Studies by author Jo Knowles.

I'm wondering if the past pandemic year has changed your own perspective on writing, or maybe how you might approach telling stories, as we hopefully get COVID-19 behind us?

I have a book coming out that's a companion novel to Where The Heart Is. It's called Meant To Be and it'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 are hugging and sharing drinks and food and doing all the things that we have learned not to do. And I thought, "Is this historical fiction now? Is this even relevant? How are we moving forward with the stories? Do we acknowledge the pandemic as a memory that kids have?"

I don't have the answer. I think we have all experienced this sort of shift, and really, this kind of fear. I hugged one of my best friends yesterday for the first time and it was so incredibly powerful. I'm just wondering, when I even describe those kind of moments in my books, if it will be different and better felt than it was in the past. I feel, and I hope, that we never take those moments for granted again. And I'm wondering if that will be reflected in how we write these moments as well.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb @mwertlieb.

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