Megan Wagner Lloyd & Michelle Mee Nutter, ALLERGIC

Megan Wagner Lloyd & Michelle Mee Nutter, ALLERGIC

Zibby talks with the author and illustrator duo behind Allergic, Megan Wagner Lloyd and Michelle Mee Nutter, about their process of working together and how Megan’s own lifelong experience with allergies influenced the book. Although Allergic is a middle grade graphic novel, the three talk about how it’s both an entertaining and important read for the whole family, especially those coping with food allergies in the family.


Zibby Owens: Welcome to Megan and Michelle. I am so excited to have you both on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Allergic. Yay!

Michelle Mee Nutter: Yay! Thank you so much.

Megan Wagner Lloyd: I’m so excited.

Zibby: We have Megan Wagner Lloyd and Michelle Mee Nutter here. Let’s start with Megan. I just want you to introduce yourself. Then Michelle, you go so listeners can hear whose voice is who as we’re discussing this book.

Megan: Great. I’m Megan Wagner Lloyd. I’m the author of Allergic. I’ve also written four picture books that are out. I just love to write. I’m always working on a new project. I have upcoming projects as well. I have a novel coming out next year. I’m an author who’s just totally obsessed with writing.

Zibby: That’s the best kind of author there is. Wait, now that you’ve teased us, what is your novel that’s coming out next year?

Megan: It’s called Haven: The Story of a Cat. It’s a kids’ novel about a cat whose owner falls sick. They live out in an isolated area, so the cat has to go out on an adventure to try to get help.

Zibby: Aw, love it. Excellent. Amazing. Okay, Michelle Mee Nutter.

Michelle: I am the illustrator for Allergic. I live in Boston with my four roommates and our own cat. I really fell into this project. It was my first step into publishing. Since then, I’ve done a picture book with America’s Test Kitchen called Peyton Picks the Perfect Pie. It is a mouthful. I’m working on another picture book and two graphic novels as well. It’s so much.

Zibby: Wow. It’s so much. That’s great. Did you two know each other before this project, or did you get paired up somehow?

Michelle: No, we got paired up. I actually went to a children’s book writers and illustrator conference in LA. That’s where I met Megan’s agent. She loved my work and wanted to pair me up with Megan for Allergic. I remember being unsure if I wanted to take on a huge project like this because graphic novels are so much work. She just sent me the sample chapters. She was like, “Just think about it. There’s no pressure.” I was on the plane ride home. I read it. The second the plane landed in Boston, I knew I had to be a part of it. I loved it so much.

Megan: It was so great. Lots of times with books, the illustrator and the author are paired after the text has already been purchased. The illustrator will be chosen by the publisher. In this case, my agent was like, “Maybe let’s try to put something together beforehand,” which is unusual. I was like, “Yeah, let’s give it a try. It sounds fun.” I had only written part of the manuscript. Then we were looking at portfolios and thinking about it, but nothing was really clicking. Then she showed it to Michelle. It was just very serendipitous that we could end up working together.

Michelle: We joke around saying it’s our cute-meet like it’s a movie.

Zibby: Are you guys going to do any projects together in the future?

Michelle: Yes. We’re actually working on a graphic novel right now together that’s not a sequel to Allergic, but it is the same format, middle grade readers.

Zibby: But not the same characters?

Michelle: No.

Zibby: I got very attached to these characters. I would like to see them back. I actually don’t usually do graphic novels on this show. I’ve only done a handful. I am allergic to dogs and now have a dog. My kids are allergic to many things. For some reason, this book was sent to me multiple times. I was like, it’s a sign. Not that other people should send me books multiple times, if you were listening. I was just like, this book is so up my alley. Of course, now my kids can enjoy it as well. It was really heartwarming in so many ways. It’s not just about being allergic, which of course many kids struggle with. The friendship piece and the, why did you drop me today? and when people aren’t able to express their feelings, you just so captured why some of what might be perceived as meanness of the middle school years is actually based on your own emotions and insecurity and issues, and the communication issues between girls and even the sibling relationships. There was so much in here, the new baby coming, that scene where the siblings together — now I’m going to forget all their names. Maggie is holding one of her twin little brothers in her hands in the middle of the night. He’s sad to sleep. Oh, my gosh, that was so precious. Tell me a little more about the story and all the different facets of it and what inspired it and also which of you, if either, are allergic to anything. Are either of you allergic to dogs or cats or anything, or what?

Michelle: Take it away, Megan. This is your time to shine.

Megan: That’s right. The story idea definitely came to be because I’m allergic to animals with fur or feathers. I also have a lot of other different allergies of all kinds. I kind of felt bad. I didn’t want to give Maggie too much to deal with. I was like, I’ll just focus on the animal allergies. That’s enough. I also just felt like it could be a really good central thing to build the book around. I feel like almost all kids can either relate to having a pet or really wanting a pet. It’s just one of those almost-universal childhood experiences. It’s not like when I was growing up, I was like, wow, I should write a book about being allergic to animals. I would never have thought that would be of interest to anyone. It seemed like something more negative or boring about me, something that was just a pain in my life. Then when I started visiting schools with my picture books, I had a little Q&A at the beginning where I would have facts about myself and kids could guess what the answer was just to get to know me a little bit.

One of the things I put in there was, what kind of pet do I have? Then I’d be like, oh, no, I don’t have any because I’m allergic. It was really interesting to me how fascinated kids were with this and then how many kids had some type of allergy. That’s where I first got the idea, that combined with seeing graphic novels really taking off and just getting so interested in them and really wanting to write one. I was like, wait a minute, this could really work for the graphic novel format. That’s where the allergy elements came from. All the experiences Maggie has are based on experiences I had or the emotions I had with having allergies, but it’s all just kind of rearranged and jumbled up from my real life. The setting, the characters, none of that is really from my life. Things are out of order. She gets allergy shots in the book, but I didn’t do that until I was thirty. I just took all that and blended it up with fiction and created the story that way. Maybe Michelle, if you want to talk about some of the friendship elements.

Michelle: That was the part that I really gravitated towards. I feel really fortunate that I don’t have allergies. The only thing that I’m allergic to is basic pollen and seasonal allergies, but that’s pretty much typical. What I really resonated with was kind of feeling like an outcast and wanting to find the perfect friend and wanting to try so hard to make a space for yourself. Her dynamic with Claire really jumped out to me just from my experience. It was fun to draw those experiences and put in a little bit of my own history of my own feelings and my own experiences with friends growing up.

Zibby: It’s so well-done. Now as you guys were talking, I was thinking, not that you need more plans or anything, but this would also be really great in picture book format. My little guys — I have a six and seven-year-old who — actually, that’s not even true. My six-year-old actually really likes graphic novels already. He’s a big Dog Man fan and all of that. It would also work so cute as a picture book. Have you thought about adapting it to that as well, or is it just one and done type of thing?

Michelle: I don’t know. Have you?

Megan: No, this is a brand-new idea.

Zibby: You should do it. It’s so cute. Even this cover, just do the same thing and just the few scenes. Then moms read it when they’re having a new baby. Maybe you have a mom in the back. Okay, I’ll stop. I’ll stop. Not that you need another project.

Michelle: I like the idea. I’m a big fan of more projects even though I probably should be, but I always love that idea.

Zibby: It’s so cute. Honestly, the characters — it’s just so well-done. The drawings are amazing. The story is amazing. Literally, I’m reading it and my husband’s like, “Um, are you reading a comic book?” I’m like, “No, it’s this amazing graphic novel. It’s so good.” I couldn’t put it down. I read the whole thing cover to cover in one sitting. It was really good. It’s not just for kids. It’s also a great reminder for parents of middle graders, what it’s like in case we forget, which we don’t often do. If you need just a great reminder, this is such a time and place moment that I thought was really great.

Michelle: I think that that’s what makes graphic novels so wonderful, is that you can pick them up and read them in one sitting. You can see so much of yourself in the people that you care about. If you’re a parent, you can see so much of your kids’ lives sprinkled in because it’s true to their experience. It really resonates with them. You get to understand your children in a new way too.

Zibby: I also love this whole crazy family versus the quiet family. Which type of family did both of you grow up in?

Michelle: Mine was quiet.

Megan: Mine was definitely the wild family. It was even bigger than Maggie’s. I have five brothers and sisters. There’s always something going on.

Zibby: What number are you? Both of you, what number in your family are you? Megan, go first.

Megan: I’m the third.

Michelle: I’m the second. I just have a brother.

Zibby: Awesome. I’m one of two, but I had four, so I’ve seen it both ways. The quiet house next door always seems like a nice thought in the craziness. Let’s go back to the allergy piece because that’s also super interesting. Tell me a little bit more about your own allergies and also what you’ve seen from all those kids in those forums for your picture books. I’ve spent a lot of time researching allergies and thinking about it and having experiences myself, and my kids. Tell me a little bit more about that piece and all of that.

Megan: I’m allergic to the animals, to pollen, to dust, some other things. I had kind of unusual allergies growing up. I put that a bit in the book with Maggie having so many skin reactions. I had an unusual amount of skin reactions even to seasonal allergies. They couldn’t really figure it out. I was having all these skin reactions. Then we were going to the dermatologist. It was clear with the animals. I’d interact with animals. I would be allergic. When I’m just having these rashes during pollen season, it wasn’t always clear, oh, this is from pollen. It was actually this big confusion to figure out for many years and finally really got the right medication, the right everything in my late twenties. That was another reason I didn’t want to make it a memoir because I was like, I’m not going to have this character have to wait until their late twenties. I will give her the answers earlier. It was always a struggle because they just randomly get worse different times. It would depend on the age too as I grew up because I think allergies can be affected by hormones and stuff. It was just a struggle. I would say that, definitely, writing the book was cathartic in that way. I do feel like — I can’t remember, I said this for some other interview or something — like I played a trick on the universe. I took this thing that was a pain in the neck and made this fun book out of it. It’s just kind of satisfying.

Zibby: I think that’s a good place to start for people looking to write books. Take the part of yourself that you’re most annoyed at and try to turn it into something else. That’s probably not a bad place to start.

Megan: Definitely. I have kids. One of my kids especially inherited a lot of my allergies. Going through school, you see how allergies are a lot more a part of kids’ lives than even when I was growing up. There’s the peanut-free table. That did not exist in schools that I went to. Just kids in general seem more aware of it. I know allergies have been on the rise. There’s different theories as to why. It’s just something that has always affected some people and seems to be affecting more and more people and often in very different ways and at different levels of severity. That’s why I wanted to include the character Sebastian that Maggie makes friends with because I wanted to show that there are these different challenges, that it’s not all a uniform experience. Some things with allergies are harder than others. I wanted to give just a little bit of a window into how that is too, with people with serious food allergies. That’s not something that I’ve experienced or that Maggie has.

Zibby: Yes, I’ve been in the ER multiple times with my kids for food allergies. Then I had allergy shots, but I started at age twelve or thirteen. I had them for three straight years. Now I feel like people don’t do that as — I feel like I should call my allergist and be like, wait, what about allergy shots? Maybe my kids should be getting those, but they’re not. I don’t know. It does seem like everybody has allergies to something. It does make you really wonder about the environment more. What is it we’re doing? Was I too stressed when I was pregnant? What is it that causes it and all the different ways, as you were saying, the different symptoms and how aggravating they are? From your position as a sufferer and a parent of and even as now an illustrator of, do you find yourself drawn to some of the research or what we can do to prevent allergies or any sort of systemic approach to it?

Michelle: Until this conversation, until just this moment, I never that this was something that could be brought on other than just random acts of geneticism that happens throughout your human body. I’m just like, oh, everybody has some form of allergy. It’s just part of life. I think now I’m going to go into a Google wormhole and look into it more.

Zibby: Let me know what you find.

Michelle: I learned so much from illustrating because I’d never experienced this. I never thought to look into it. That’s shame on me for not educating myself more. When I was researching and clicking all the links that Megan sent me for reference, it kind of opened up my world to being more empathetic towards this process because I’ve never seen it.

Megan: I don’t know as far as solutions. I know that climate change is supposed to potentially make allergies a lot worse because of warming temperatures and then even make indoor allergies worse for people because of increased rainfall. Then there’s more mold. Obviously, there’s so much that needs to be done there. I feel like there’s all these things health-wise with the immune system that need a lot more research. There’s a lot of autoimmune diseases and allergies. Science is amazing. There’s so much we’ve learned about health in even just the last hundred years, but in some areas, it seems like there’s still so much farther we could go to figure it out. I did look into a lot of scientific aspects writing the book. Scholastic had an allergist read it and give feedback as well to make sure we were being accurate. Then I’m not super great with fact retention, so I have forgotten a lot of the stuff that I looked up. This is why I’m not a writer of nonfiction.

Zibby: Michelle, tell me a little bit about your process of illustrating this. How did you do this? There’s so many drawings here. Did you do it all on the computer? Tell me the whole process.

Michelle: I learned every step of the way because I’ve never done anything on this scale before. Anything I’d done was small, short stories, one or two pages of comics. I never had to think about continuity with these characters through hundreds of pages. What ended up happening was they started shifting over time. What I initially did to start was make character sketches, get the feel of the characters and the family. Then once that was set, I stuck them up on my wall. Then I started sketching on just regular computer paper and pencil. Once I finalized those, sent them in for edits and then got notes, then I went to digital. That required using both my iPad and my Cintiq. It’s this big tablet that you can draw on. It’s magic. It’s wonderful. It was a layering process. You refined more and more. It’s the same with writing where you have your rough draft and your outline. Then you edit. Then you flesh it out. Then you edit again. It’s the same, just with drawing. I actually used a colorist for this process. There are two terms called a flatter and a colorist. I ended up using two flatters that basically fill in all the flat shapes of color so I don’t have to do this tedious work because it takes a lot of time. It’s very common in the industry. It was a cool thing that I didn’t really think that independent comic artists could use and utilize. That was a fun part of the process. There was so much learning.

Zibby: Wow, but now look at that. You’re a graphic novel illustrator. You can take the show on the road. That’s amazing.

Michelle: There you go.

Zibby: What about you, Megan, for the writing? What was your process like?

Megan: One of the longest parts for me was getting from the initial idea to having a really firm plan for how the book was actually going to play out. I had the idea. Then I wrote a few chapters. I was like, how much do I make this like me and my experience? Should it be a memoir? Should it be fiction? I was like, I don’t even like writing memoir stuff. Why would I do that? I just love fiction. That probably took me about a year from when I had the idea to when I was like, okay, I figured out the characters, the general setup, how I’m going to make this book. Then I had written a couple chapters. We had a plan. I was so incredibly lucky to be able to work with Michelle. Then we put together the whole pitch and sold it that way with some of her art and some of my writing already there. Then it sold really fast. It was so exciting. Then I was like, I got to write the rest of the script so Michelle can get drawing more. I definitely felt a little like, I can’t believe we’re doing this. I can’t believe people are trusting me to do this. I’d only done smaller projects before. I was like, well, whatever I’ve been doing so far seems to be working, so I’ll just proceed with that mindset. Just keep this rolling.

Then I was able to get the script written without too much trouble just going back and forth with my editor. Then because I’d done picture books before where usually you finish the text and then they buy it and then it’s illustrated — you might make some changes, for sure, trimming things or rearranging things a bit and stuff. In my experience, I hadn’t done a lot of changes. Then I was kind of surprised. Once we combined the sketches and the text, then our editor was like, “Okay, now this is the new working document.” With every round of the art process, then we would go through the text every single time, and the art, and make sure everything was working together. That ended up being a longer process than I expected, but I was really glad because it was just really fun to be involved every step of the way. Then also, it made everything be so cohesive. It just felt like we were always able to get stuff where me, Michelle, and our editor were all getting to the same page with everything. That was longer and different than I had expected going into it since it was my first project this way, but it was really great.

Michelle: It was a lot of fun. It was so much fun.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Two things for both of you, what advice would you have to aspiring authors/illustrators? Also, what would you say to parents who are dealing with their kids’ food allergies? Then you can go.

Michelle: I guess I’ll go. For any aspiring illustrators, just keep drawing. At some point when we’re kids, everyone is an artist and everyone is encouraged to be creative. Then I think at some point, we get a little bit embarrassed or shy about our work. We kind of put it up to this pedestal where it’s like, is this good or bad? At a certain point, people stop creating for fun. If you just follow the passion and follow the excitement and the creativity of it, then you’re going to unlock new pathways. The more you practice and the more you keep going, the better that you’ll become. The better your eye will be. You’ll just keep ascending going higher and higher. Perseverance is key. Be like Maggie and just persevere. Try new things. For allergies, I honestly don’t know any advice. I just have empathy and a lot of love for the struggle that kids and their families go through with allergies.

Megan: For aspiring authors, I would say try to finish projects. I would say for most published authors, they’ve made a lot of projects before their published ones that were practice projects. You can get in a mindset where you’re always working on something but never finishing anything because you’re like, oh, I had a better idea. This project doesn’t seem that good anymore. Now I’ll work on this new one. I think you can learn so much by seeing a project through to the end and keeping the faith in it that whole time. I think part of the process is learning how to write better. Part of the process is learning how to basically run a marathon of writing a long project. It’s learning how to continue to work on the same thing throughout the periods of discouragement and not giving up. I would say just try to finish multiple projects. Build those writing muscles. Every project’s not going to work out. Even after you’re published, every project isn’t going to work out. Just keep working on it. Try to build really consistent habits and skills.

Then for kids with allergies, I would just say that I think that it does get better than when you first find out. You can develop a consistent routine of care. You can have trusted adults who know what you need. You can see doctors who can help you have the medication you need or the treatment you need. Just don’t be afraid to speak up and let other people know what is okay for you and not. Sometimes people can act kind of skeptical about allergies, but you know even when you’re a kid. You’ve talked to your parents. You’ve talked to your doctor. You know what you can do and what you can’t do. You know if you can’t eat a certain food. You know if going in that house is going to make you sick because they have a cat or whatever. It can be hard, but I think you do need to learn to speak up for yourself because everyone doesn’t always treat you like they believe you. You understand what it is that you can do and not do and what is okay for your body, so I think really just learning to set those boundaries that are really essential for you.

Zibby: That’s great. That’s fantastic advice, very good to remember. Thank you, ladies. Thanks for talking about Allergic. I loved it. It’s so great for any parents or anyone who has — it’s not even just if you have allergies. It’s for the other kids, if you’re having a baby and you have a — it’s for everybody. This book is for everybody. It was great. Congratulations. Start working on the picture book version. You can just put me in acknowledgments. That’s all I need.

Michelle: Thank you so much for having us. It was a lot of fun.

Megan: Thank you.

Zibby: Thanks. Buh-bye.

Michelle: Buh-bye.

Allergic by Megan Wagner Lloyd & Michelle Me Nutter

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