Terri Libenson, JUST JAIME

Terri Libenson, JUST JAIME

Cartoonist and author Terri Libenson joins Zibby to discuss her latest middle-grade novel, Just Jaime, which was selected for The Washington Post KidsPost Summer Book Club. Terri and Zibby talk about their experiences of excluding and being excluded by friends in middle school, as well as how our painful and embarrassing childhood memories are actually important to discuss. Terri also shares the story of how she became a syndicated cartoonist which ultimately led to her creating the Emmie & Friends series. To sign up for the KidsPost Summer Book Club, go to wapo.st/kidspostbookclub2021.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Terri. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Just Jaime.

Terri Libenson: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: I have to tell you — this is part of The Washington Post KidsPost Summer Book Club. When I read about the book club, I ripped it out of the paper right away and went running to my fourteen-year-old daughter. I was like, “This is great. You have to do this. Which books do you want to read? What do you think?” She circled yours and one other. I was like, great, maybe I can interview the authors, so here we are.

Terri: Excellent.

Zibby: It turned out she enjoyed it, but my younger kids also loved it. They’re almost eight and six and a half. They loved it. It’s a crowd-pleaser around here, so thanks for that.

Terri: Wow, that’s great. Six and a half, what a precocious reader.

Zibby: No, I read it out loud to them. He actually is an amazing reader and has been reading for two years. He’s insane, but fourth kid. I don’t know, whatever.

Terri: That’s so incredible.

Zibby: So incredible. Would you mind telling listeners what Just Jaime is about and how you ended up writing not only this, but the whole Emmie & Friends series?

Terri: Let me start with the Emmie & Friends series. It was an interesting way of going about it. I actually was a syndicated cartoonist for about fourteen years. Had to actually end it a bit earlier than expected because the books kind of took over. Because I have that cartooning background, it was sort of a natural extension to write these books. It’s almost like writing comics, but in long form. It’s just an easy way, not an easy way, but it’s kind of a natural way for me to work with the images and text, so I tried my hand at it.

Zibby: Wait, let’s go back, then, even further. How did you start being a syndicated cartoonist? How did you get into that originally?

Terri: Oh, wow, you’re going way back.

Zibby: Going way back.

Terri: I’ve wanted to be a newspaper cartoonist since college, so we are going quite a bit back. I’ve always loved cartooning. I used to do my own comics when I was a kid. I used to love reading them. We didn’t have graphic novels like these. We had comic anthologies and collections and comic books, Mad magazine, all that stuff. That’s what got me hooked. I just made it my goal. A mere ten years of trying, and I got my big break back when my kids were really little. I think that was about 2006 when it launched. It’s called The Pajama Diaries. You can actually read it online from the beginning now. It’s in reruns on Comics Kingdom. If you go to Comics Kingdom, you can read my strip. I loved doing it, absolutely loved doing it. I wrote very autobiographically. That seems to be my strength. About maybe five or six years ago while I was still doing this strip, I had some cartoonist friends start to do graphic novels and illustrated novels, those types of books. I tried my hand at it. I got in right before the big boom before they really exploded, so it was great. I wrote Invisible Emmie. There it is. I got my stack of books. This was my first one, Invisible Emmie. I wrote it very autobiographically as well just like the comic strip, except I wrote my viewpoint as a twelve or thirteen-year-old instead of as an adult. It seemed to be a really natural way for me to write. Weirdly, I can still remember how I felt then. It was great. I just wrote organically. I didn’t have a story in mind, but as I wrote from this particular voice of Emmie, a story formed. The plot thickened. Everything worked out. Now I’m working on the sixth one. It’s been a ride. I love these books. They really took over.

Zibby: What are the names of the other ones? I see your whole stack sitting there.

Terri: Some of them are actually advance reader copies.

Zibby: Ooh, tell me about those too.

Terri: Invisible Emmie is the first. Let’s see. I didn’t put my stack in order, unfortunately.

Zibby: That’s okay.

Terri: We’ve got Positively Izzy which stars Emmie’s best friend Brianna in the front there and another made-up girl named Izzy. Just Jaime, the one you were holding up, this is my advance copy. I don’t know where I put my regular copy. There you go. This is my third. Then two others, oh, my gosh, I’ve got another advance copy here, I’ve got Becoming Brianna and Truly Tyler, which just came out in May. I’m writing the sixth one now. It’s quite a ride.

Zibby: When you said it was autobiographical, particularly the first one, tell me what happened in your own life that inspired it.

Terri: Like I said, I just wrote from the heart, just wrote from my own voice. A story just kind of formed. I will say that an embarrassing incident happened to me in fifth grade that became the turning point in the book. You know what? As I tell kids all the time, don’t worry about anything embarrassing that happens to you because it could work out in your favor later on. That’s exactly what happened.

Zibby: It could become a graphic novel in twenty years or whatever.

Terri: Exactly. Now I have no shame. I’m willing to write about it. It worked out. There was a funny note incident. I don’t want to give it away.

Zibby: Yeah, don’t give it away. It’s fine.

Terri: It definitely helped drive this whole story plot.

Zibby: Why did you not give up? Why did you keep going for ten years to try to achieve — you say it so flippantly. Oh, it’s just my goal. That’s a big deal to not give up and to keep trying. Why didn’t you give up?

Terri: I know. Perseverance is a key. I think it’s because I just wanted it so badly. Luckily, I had heard that it can take a very, very long time to break into that business. Newspaper syndicates are the ones who distribute cartoons to newspapers all over the country. They kind of act like an agent as well as a distributor. At the time I was trying to get syndicated, they were only picking up maybe two or three comic strips at the most. Especially now that newspapers are dwindling, it’s even less. They said it’s actually harder to break into than to break into Hollywood as an actor. It could take a very, very long time. It was just something I really wanted. I didn’t do it ten years in a row. I sort of did it on and off over the course of ten years. I was trying to develop ideas as I went along. I did it in steps. I actually got a weekly strip launched even before my daily strip. It was nice baby steps along the way. It actually taught me a lot, too, as I went through it. It was very helpful.

Zibby: Let’s talk a little about Just Jaime. Where did this plotline come from? Obviously, this feeling of being a girl and having girls sort of gang up against you and the strains that get — I’m viewing this as a line, like a tug-of-war line that’s growing more and more taut and frayed over time between best friends as so often happens when they get older. Their loyalties seem to shift every day. It’s all so unpredictable. I feel like it’s just super, super relatable. How did you come to this?

Terri: Thanks. Yeah, that was a great way of putting it. Definitely, a tug of war of feelings and tensions. This was taken directly from something that happened to my older daughter when she was in eighth grade. It’s loosely based on her incident. I thought, oh, my gosh, what a relatable, universal thing. My daughter gave me permission to talk about this book. She’s in college now, so it’s fine.

Zibby: She’s in college? Oh, my gosh, you look so young. I thought you had tiny kids. Wow.

Terri: No.

Zibby: How old are your kids?

Terri: I have a nineteen-year-old and a twenty-one-year-old. The one in college is going to be a senior, which just astounds me. It goes like that. Do you have kids yourself?

Zibby: I have four kids.

Terri: Okay, so you know how .

Zibby: But they’re between fourteen and six, so we’ve got a while.

Terri: You’ve got a while, but it goes by in the blink of an eye. It really does, just as they say. My older daughter, when she was in eighth grade, she was brutally excluded by her friend group. She was dumped through a group text message. They listed all the reasons why they didn’t like her anymore. It was horrible.

Zibby: Girls are so mean. Really unbelievable.

Terri: It was bad. To top it all off, that happened the night before we were going on a twenty-hour car ride. We were driving from Cleveland where we lived down to Florida to visit my mother. There was this enormous car ride with the four of us and my daughter who’s just in emotional pain. I have to say, she was a trooper. She was a total trooper throughout that trip. She was trying to put it behind her a little bit. It worked out for her because her old friend group from elementary school kind of took her in after that happened. They thought it was awful, what happened to her. Some of them are still her best friends today.

Zibby: The ones who wrote her in the group text?

Terri: No, the ones who took her in after.

Zibby: Who she reunited with? Okay.

Terri: Yeah. She had a clean break with the other girls.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I was like, no, don’t let her go back to them.

Terri: No, no, no. You know what? It was funny because my husband and I, throughout her whole up-and-down friendship with those original girls who dumped her, the whole time, we were thinking things were just off. It just wasn’t a good fit for her and these girls. It did work out in the end. It just goes to show how friendships can be strained and how friends can break up with other friends just like boyfriends and girlfriends and etc. can do that, couples. It was brutal. I took that story and loosely based the book on it. After getting some distance from it, I also thought, because these books are usually from the perspective of two different girls, I wanted to get both sides of the story and show it through the eyes of the excluder and the one who is excluded. I thought that made it a little more interesting. That’s where you have the two best friends, Jaime and Maya, and all the tension surrounding them and all the peer pressure. Maya obviously is more affected by the peer pressure because she’s the one who does the excluding. Jaime is the one who is caught up in everything and is left out. It just shows Jaime’s strength throughout all of this. It’s a ride. It really is.

Zibby: You know, they should really prepare kids more, and even parents, to be on the lookout. That is as bad as it gets as a kid, is when who you thought were your friends all turn on you. As you show here, it doesn’t mean all of them are bad people. The group collective decision to exclude someone else, to bond the remaining people together, it’s this game of survivor that middle-school girls play. It’s really devastating. You’re like, it’s funny, I remember the feelings. I remember the feelings like I had them yesterday from being excluded as a kid. It’s heartbreaking. It depends where you go. Why were the girls at camp mean to me but the girls at school were nice? It doesn’t matter. It’s scarring. I hope kids out there know that this happens to so many kids and you end up growing up and being totally fine.

Terri: Absolutely. That’s actually one of the biggest reasons why I wrote the book. I just want kids to know they’re not alone. These things happen all the time. Well, not all the time, but enough. You never know. My other daughter was absolutely fine throughout middle school. She enjoyed. My older daughter was actually fine too up until this moment in eighth grade. This was toward the end of eighth grade. She was almost in high school by then. Up until then, she was fine too. It’s universal, but like you said, it also doesn’t have to be the end of your social life by any means.

Zibby: I had the opportunity to sort of confront a childhood bully in my life who I had not had anything to do with in almost forty years, honestly. No, less than that because I’m not that old. I can’t even do the math. Between thirty-five and forty years. I was like, “Do you even remember how mean you were to me? Do you remember that? That really stuck with me.” She was like, “I do remember. I was going through a lot in my own life at the time. I’m really sorry.”

Terri: Aw.

Zibby: I know. I was like, okay, well, at least I have that closure on that moment. All to say even when I read Just Jaime, it’s like, .

Terri: Brings it all up. I’m so sorry.

Zibby: No, it’s okay. It’s good to work through it.

Terri: Yeah, working through it. I know. You know what? I excluded one of my friends in the past and didn’t even realize it. I think I completely blocked it out. It was so subtle. I hate to say that it almost happened naturally. I think we were just going our own ways anyway. I was definitely the perpetrator in that. Writing Just Jaime, it kind of came back to me. It’s amazing what you can block out.

Zibby: It’s true. I feel like I was also the one in another setting, swept away, who felt compelled to dump someone else. That’s also terrible. I also feel terrible about that.

Terri: We owe everybody apologies everywhere.

Zibby: Blanket apologies. How long does each of these books take you to write and illustrate?

Terri: They’re all pretty different. Just Jaime actually fell out of me. I think it was so palpable even then. This was years after the incident happened. I probably wrote the book within a month and a half, two months with very minimal tweaking. I’ve had other books just take forever. When I say take forever, they don’t really take forever because I’m on a yearly schedule with them, so they’ve got to be in within a few months. Truly Tyler, which I wrote during the pandemic, it’s my pandemic book, it was wrenched out of me. I must have rewritten it three times and then tweaked it a fourth time. By rewrite, I mean rewrote entirely, storyline. Even characters changed completely. It was pretty gut-wrenching, but I have to say, I love how it came out. Even the art, which I didn’t have as much time for as I normally do during these books because it was just taking forever, that came out great too. There’s a book within a book in it because the two characters growing up make their own comic book. I’m having four different art styles in here because of the two kids doing their own art styles within their comic book and then my regular. Two different types of chapters. Each of these books are what I call a hybrid. They’re not really graphic novels, per se. They’re part illustrated novel and part graphic novel. Each of the characters, their stories are told stylistically differently. It’s very confusing.

Zibby: Wow, sounds like a big challenge.

Terri: Yeah, huge.

Zibby: What’s your plan? What are your next goals? You’ve had your eyes set on this prize for so long. Now what? You must have something else brewing in you.

Terri: Oh, sure, many things. I’m writing the sixth one. There will be a seventh book coming after that. The series keeps going so far. We’ll see after that. I’m just enjoying them. As hard as they can be, some of these books, it’s also completely fun and enjoyable. I’m also trying my hand at some younger kids’ books. We’ll see where that goes. This may or may not go anywhere. I’m also trying a historical fiction graphic novel, at least the writing aspect. I’m not sure about the art yet. That’s more of a many-years-long undertaking. I don’t want to rush it too much because it just requires so much research. That’s what’s going on.

Zibby: Awesome, I love it. What advice would you have for aspiring authors and illustrators? What would you say to all the kids out there reading your book about friendship since that’s the whole theme of the summer book club for The Washington Post?

Terri: Like we talked about, definitely, I think these types of stories that I write about or friendship relationships, it’s so universal. I want kids to know that they’re not alone in their feelings. Sometimes they might feel like that. Honestly, there are a lot of things that happen to a lot of kids that are very similar. These are not grand, detrimental things that happen to kids, more like everyday, almost under-the-surface things sometimes with these friendship power struggles and just feeling left out, things like that. Advice to writers and creators and artists, I think the perseverance thing, it’s huge. You really have to keep at it. Writing and illustrating takes a lot of practice. I always say if you want to write your own book or graphic novel, I always start out by just doing large brain dumps, just doing it, just writing, and going back and fixing things later or editing or whatever. I think just getting your story down on paper first and foremost is really important. One of the biggest pieces of advice that I like to give is it’s great to step away from it too. Especially with writing, I find that if I step away from something that’s not working, if I approach it again even a day later or sometimes a week later, whatever you can do, I see it with fresh eyes. I see what mistakes are made. I see what I can fix. It helps so much. It really helps so much. I can see it’s about to storm again behind me.

Zibby: That’s perfect. We got the whole thing in. It’s perfect. Awesome. Terri, thank you. Thanks so much. Thanks for entertaining all my kids and raising some really good, important issues that it’s good to talk about even before they happen and certainly after for people who feel like it’s some sort of shameful secret like you and me, maybe. No, I’m kidding. Thank you so much for coming on. I can’t wait to read the rest of your books with my kids.

Terri: Thank you so much. I hope they enjoy them all. I hope you do too.

Zibby: Thank you. Have a great day.

Terri: Thank you so much.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Terri: Bye.

Terri Libenson, JUST JAIME

JUST JAIME by Terri Libenson

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