Tag Archive for Graphic novel memoir

A Conversation with Sylvie Kantorovitz: Author/Illustrator of the Dazzling New Graphic Novel Memoir, “SYLVIE”

“My picture book background did help me
a lot with pacing
and the importance of visual variety,
and I will also credit years of reading
graphic novels and comics!”

— Sylvie Kantorovitz


Sylvie Kantorovitz is a true artist from the top of her head down to the soles of her shoes. She’s just one of those rare people where creating art in some form seems as natural as breathing. Sylvie’s latest book, a memoir in graphic novel form, is a triumph in every way. It’s a book that could have been titled, “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Child and Woman.” You can’t help but be charmed by Sylvie’s story — her uncanny recollections of childhood — the warmth of her illustrations — and the path of her self-discovery. After I finished admiring the book, I invited Sylvie over to the swanky corporate offices here at the 14th floor of James Preller Dot Com. Let’s meet her!


I can’t wait to talk about this terrific book, so let’s get started. As I understand it, this book was something of a happy accident. You didn’t set out to write a memoir? 

I knew I wanted to write a graphic novel. I knew I wanted to base it on my memories of growing up in France. But I was worried about not remembering enough. At first I called the main character Lisette, and labeled my work “a fictional memoir”. Then I found out I remembered plenty! And one day my agent asked this very simple question: Is it fiction or is it a memoir? And the answer jumped at me: of course it is a memoir!

There’s a minor moment early in the book, four illustrations across two pages. You are circling a favorite tree, stepping on the roots with your brother Alibert, careful not to fall off. And to me, that was absolute perfection. You captured something that felt so right, childlike and authentic. I remember that exact feeling, careful not to fall into the shark-infested waters. 

Thank you! I really love how universal these early childhood games seem to be. Pretending the floor is lava. Or the bed is in the middle of an ocean teaming with pirates and sharks. How thrilling imaginary danger is! 

I want to get at this by avoiding a couple of standard pat answers. We often hear: 1) I’m still a 7-year-old in my heart; or 2) I still have a direct line to my childhood. And while those two things might be true for you, I want to ask: Why do you think those moments still resonate for us, still linger so powerfully in our memories? 

Haha! I am definitely not a 7-year-old at heart any more, nor do I have a direct line to my childhood! For me, as I get older, I want to define who I am, what is important to me. I want to embrace that fully and also decide how I want to use the time I have left. It’s hard work, and my memories are one of the tools that help me in figuring all that out.      

It’s interesting how this creative act opened up a flood of memories for you — forgotten memories, if there’s such a thing.

I was happy to find out that memories have a way of triggering each other. In fact, more are still coming! What became a challenge was what to keep. I chose anecdotes that I thought showed an emotional moment in the story, or allowed me to expand on who a character was. Like showing what happened when my sister fell through a roof, or when my father took me to Paris, or when I messed up on an important school test.

There’s a lot of playing in your book, which I found so relatable. An experience that is at the core of us all, I’d think. Did that come back to you easily?   

Actually yes. The school where my family lived was like a giant playground! We played in the classrooms, spied on the gardener, once had a sleepover in the infirmary. I also wanted to show how similar playtime is for children in another country, including games like hopscotch or marbles.

I could personally identify with the magical visits to your father’s office, where he had a ready supply of paper clips, markers, pens, tape, paper. Heaven for a young artist. As a boy, I used to go to my father’s insurance office. He had something that trumped all that: tracing paper!  

I can’t help wondering: tracing paper in an insurance office? But how about the thrill of using a manual typewriter?  That also was such fun!  

A snapshot of Sylvie in real life, reading in bed in 1968.

Yes, it sure was, though I was dazzled with the first electric typewriter. Wowza! I especially appreciate the variety of images and artwork, the pacing. It’s as if each chapter is its own complete, self-contained picture book, where the artwork flows in different shapes and sizes. Each spread contains a new surprise. You make it look easy. 

My picture book background did help me a lot with pacing and the importance of visual variety, and I will also credit years of reading graphic novels and comics! Growing up in France when I did, I was immersed in a great comics culture which I am so glad has arrived here too.  The variety available now for kids is amazing!

Your mother was tough. She said some harsh things, too. How was it looking back on that now, so many years later? 

Haha! I didn’t wait to write a memoir in order to examine the effect of my parent’s influence on my adult mind. So pondering over my mother’s style was nothing new to me. In the book, I tried to show a balanced view of my mother, such as her also being caring and affectionate. And how confusing those mixed messages are for a child to navigate.

Are your parents still alive? And if so, how did they react to the book? 

My father died many years ago but I think he would have been pleased. He loved all forms of expression, from the classics to popular genres to comics. My mother died during the pandemic, a few months before publication. But I think she would have been oddly proud to figure so prominently in a book by her “American” daughter.  

There’s a lot of cleaning in this book! Are you as neat today? 

Haha! I really am! I love cleanliness and order. It really started with getting that skeleton key to my own little attic room.  I still sigh with pleasure when I think of the orderly little domain I created as a girl.   

Could we see a photo of your workspace (but no cheating — I don’t want you cleaning beforehand!)? 

My two tables:


That’s so cool, thanks for giving us that glimpse. Sylvie follows your life from childhood to college. A journey of self-discovery. What age reader is this book intended for? 

It is listed as a book for children 8 to 12. But I have had a lot of feedback from adults who have loved it, which is great.

I love that very last image of you sitting on a train, a zoomy blur, catapulting into the future. You are on your way! When did you know that would be the final image? 

That scene actually moved from the very beginning — Sylvie thinking back on her youth — to the very end — Sylvie on her way to her future. I think it worked out well, as the theme of the train kept cropping up: waving at trains, taking a train for the first time without parents, loving a song about a train whistling in the night. For me the train is a metaphor for the longing I felt to go places. A longing that eventually brought me to the United States.  

I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about your partner, the lovely and talented Barbara Lehman. How is she? 

Barbara is well, thank you. Her latest book came out very recently: Little Red and the Cat who Loved Cake. The Horn Book called it “Another triumph from a master of wordless picture books.” I agree!  It is also very funny.





You are also a fine painter. Is your work available for sale? 

Thank you. At this time, I do not actively try to sell my artwork. At my art table, I can do whatever I want. However, I am always happy if someone wants to own a piece. People often contact me privately and I have sold much art that way through the years.

Last question: you must have learned a lot by reflecting on your life in this way. Stories give it shape and meaning. Did anything surprise you along the way? 

I was delighted to find out my young self was not that different from who I am now. My views on people and life have evolved, of course, but my core values are essentially the same. I also realized how similar I am to my father. And I like that. It is something I hadn’t fully realized before because I didn’t have a reason to reexamine my memories and look at the bigger picture. I am glad I did!

Sylvie, I’m a little abashed by how many questions I asked you. My apologies. I truly loved your book and, of course, I’ve been a fan for many years. Thanks for giving us your life in this format, and your time in this interview.

I enjoyed this conversation, James!  And now, back to the drawing board.

To learn more about Sylvie Kantorovitz, you can find her on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or her website. She’s published many other picture books, including The Very Tiny Baby, Zig and the Magic Umbrella, and more. 


A Conversation with Marisabina Russo: Celebrating Her Graphic Novel Memoir, “Why Is Everybody Yelling?”

“I think you have to continuously challenge yourself
as an artist.
Learn a new vocabulary. Solve a puzzle.
Go down some dead ends.
Make discoveries.
Otherwise it gets boring.”
— Marisabina Russo

I admire the survivors in this business. The people who have carved out long careers in children’s books. Sometimes the light shines down brightly, other times they stand alone. And yet the survivors persist. They keep creating, keep making. Hey, it’s not like there’s a choice. Fun fact: Marisabina and I both published our debut books in 1986 — 36 years ago! — and exactly one of those books is still in print. (Clue: It’s not mine.) I first met Marisabina at the Hudson Children’s Book Festival some years back. We were wolfing down free food. I hope you give this interview some time. Marisabina is wise, perceptive, modest, kind, experienced. All the good things. Btw, does anyone have a better first name? Marisabina! It’s a joy to say out loud. Look! Here she comes now. 


Congratulations on a truly remarkable achievement. This new book feels like the summation of everything you’ve learned as a person and an artist — and yet, also, it shows that you are still growing, still learning new things. After a long and successful career, is this your most deeply personal work?

First of all, thank you! This book took me seven long years to complete and it only covers ten years of my life. I’m still recovering! It was the most challenging project of my career for several reasons. First, I had to dig deep to explore some pretty painful memories. Then I decided to tell my story in a graphic format, something I had never tried before. Next thing I knew, I was writing a script and teaching myself Photoshop! But I think you have to continuously challenge yourself as an artist. Learn a new vocabulary. Solve a puzzle. Go down some dead ends. Make discoveries. Otherwise it gets boring.

I love that. I think of it as: go to the thing that scares you. The project you aren’t sure you can handle. The challenges bring the best out of you. 

Absolutely. It’s a leap of faith. The hard part is taking the first step and then trusting yourself to figure it out.

My pal, illustrator/author Matthew McElligott, has a great expression for that. “You know how to land the plane.” It’s a reassuring thought when you are circling rough terrain, low on fuel. A benefit of long experience. It might be scary, but you are pretty sure that you’ll survive without too many civilian casualties. I was wondering: When did you start thinking about writing a memoir? That your story could become the story?

This madness all began back in 2008 when I was emerging from a harrowing year of cancer treatment. I did what I’ve always done in times of darkness — kept a journal/sketchbook. I took it with me every day; on the train, to the hospital for radiation, to the clinic for chemo, to my couch where I crashed every afternoon. I’d been reading a lot graphic books and it occurred to me that if I wrote about my cancer in a comic form, it would put this buffer of humor and art between my ceaseless anxiety and the deep unknown of my illness. I was doing it only for myself as a means of survival but then I happened to meet Mark Siegel of First/Second Books and he told me to be “brave” and send it to him. Obviously, the whole thing morphed from a cancer memoir into a coming-of-age memoir, but that’s another story. It was Mark who encouraged me to keep going. Then he offered to show it to Margaret Ferguson at FSG and to my great surprise, she took it.

You’ve said that if you realized at the time how much work it would be, you might not have done it. But now that it is done, you must feel immensely gratified.

Drawing a page or two of a comic is fun. Drawing over 200 pages is terrifying! I remember moments of despair as I looked at stacks of paper awaiting inking and painting. Would I ever finish? I felt as if I were running as hard as I could but staying in one place. Some panels took days to complete! But, yes, now that I can hold my book in my hands, I am thrilled. And in some ways, I really miss working on it. I still have a twinge of postpartum depression.

Well, if you really miss that feeling, I suppose you could hit yourself in the head with a hammer. 

Or maybe just start another graphic novel? Less violent.

As the youngest of seven children, I could really identify with the sense, especially early in the book, of listening in on conversations you didn’t fully understand. You are constantly trying to figure out what’s actually happening. 

In my family, I was always the only child in the room. Nothing revolved around me. I was expected to be polite and quiet. So I listened. My mother sometimes spoke to me in Italian when I was young but never in German. That was the language of secrets in my family. Of course, I wanted to know what was going on especially when the conversations grew heated! So I listened like a little mouse with big ears. I watched their faces and body language and one day I discovered that I understood German! It was like that feeling you get when you’re a child and you realize you can read. Everything shifted. 

So . . . all that artwork. Did you ever count the number of images you had to produce? I asked a similar question to Matt Phelan, and he was like, “Oh no, you can never count!”

Ha ha! I agree with Matt. Sometimes my husband would try to estimate how many drawings I was doing and I would make him stop! 

Oh, wait, you’re married? Now this is awkward. I thought this was date?

So many years! We met in college. My husband is my rock. He helped me enormously on this book by scanning all the artwork. If that doesn’t sound like much, try scanning 200 pages just for fun.

I sometimes work with high school students on their college application essay. I tell them how much I love that essay, the opportunity to pause and reflect and find meaning in their lives. A memoir is much the same exercise. Did anything surprise you along the way?

When I was in high school, I often wrote about the things that were going on in my family. I don’t think I was reflecting on any of it. I was just trying to record the craziness and kind of tame it. I remember my favorite English teacher suggesting there was no way these stories were true, that I had a big imagination! I assured him I was not making it up but I’m not sure he ever believed me. 

Writing about some of these same events now, so many years later, I did find myself reflecting on my relationships with different family members. I think I was lucky to grow up in an era of letter writing. It was especially moving for me to reread my brother Piero’s letters. Each envelope is a work of art. The words are poetic. His love for me is so obvious. As the years went by, his mental illness took a toll on all of us. It was hard for me to shake the memory of seeing him homeless on the streets of New York. But as I reread his earlier letters, I was swept back to happier days when he made me believe in magical things and the possibilities that were awaiting me in life.

That’s beautiful and heart-wrenching. Did you have a full script and then illustrate? Or do the two elements — word & image — come simultaneously?

At first I wrote and drew pictures all at once. But when I started working with my editor, Margaret Ferguson, she asked me to write the complete script before doing any more drawings. It felt like I was writing a film script and I enjoyed it. Of course, later, as I started to lay out the drawings, I would ask myself, “Really? You had to set all these scenes in the Louvre?” 


There was a lot of research I had to do for the pictures to be sure they were accurate, everything from the paintings and interiors of museums and churches to the advertising in the subway stations. 

Bernard Waber — something of a forgotten genius, IMO — once told me that the writer in him tries to please the illustrator. And vice versa.

I knew Bernard Waber from an annual author dinner we both attended for several years. (They were organized by a school librarian in Putnam Valley.) He always had a twinkle in his eye. I truly hope he’s not forgotten! 

I have a sweet story about him, an unexpected act of kindness. A good man. I interviewed him at a time when my oldest son, Nick, was very sick. He popped a Lyle plush toy in the mail along with a sweet card. I will forever love him for that.

My writer and illustrator selves sometimes have to duke it out. When you’re making your own picture book, you have the freedom to move between words and images, rearranging, cutting, and editing as you go. But your two selves may not always agree! If anything, I think my writing self is the bigger diva, never wanting to cut a word or phrase.

Besides the art — and we’ll get to that in a minute — what was the hardest part about it? I’d think that it requires a heaping amount of courage. 

It felt, at times, like I was putting myself through therapy. I relived some difficult scenes from my life like my mother yelling at me, yelling at my stepfather, and the general unpredictability of her moods. I didn’t want to overdo it and turn my mother into a monster so it was a delicate balance. I also found myself writing at length about my brother, Piero, and ignoring my own story. I was very lucky to have Margaret as my editor because she would reel me back in and remind me this was my story, not my brother’s. She consistently pushed me to be more introspective. It could be painful but I knew she was right!

It’s easier to write about someone else than to turn that same tough gaze inward.


Is there a particular sequence, or page, or passage, where you think, Oh, that part there, I’m proud of that.

Well, about halfway through, Margaret left FSG and I got a new editor, Wes Adams. The first thing he did was ask me to expand the book. More writing! More pictures! He encouraged me add more full page illustrations and so I did. One of these was the last page of Chapter 10, the aerial view of my friend, Karen, and me on the corner next to my apartment building. It was a lot of work to get the perspective right and draw all those bricks, but I’m very happy with it.

It’s a wonderful illustration, especially effective after five consecutive six-panel pages. A refreshing change of pace. It also brings home your youth, your smallness — and, of my, that is a lot of bricks! Why don’t they make these buildings out of stucco?

Ha ha. We’re talking Queens in the 1950s. 


That’s a lot of bricks to color. Could you take us through one brief section in more detail. One image, or one page, or one sequence of images. Why do you think it works?

The image at the bottom of page three where I picture myself as a little nun walking with other nuns felt like such a funny scene sitting as it does below the picture of my family arguing in a mixture of Yiddish and English. I think the pages of my visit to the mental hospital (30 – 32) are successful especially where the text with the first mention of Auschwitz is boxed alone next to a close up of me looking at the numbers tattooed on my Tante Anny’s arm. It stops the chatter of everyone arguing for a moment and reveals how deeply confusing and scary the adult world can be for a child. 

Amazing work. This is a book that rewards scrutiny. The more a reader puts into it, the more depths that are revealed. 

Thank you. I’ve heard from several readers that they rushed through the book the first time because the words and story were compelling them to finish. Later they decided to read the book a second time so they could absorb the pictures.

Lastly, as a writer, I’m envious of illustrators who can listen to podcasts while they work. I need either silence or instrumental music for (rare!) times of Deep Thinking. What did you listen to while doing all that artwork? 

While writing, sketching, and even sometimes even inking, I prefer silence. When I start painting I need music. I especially like listening to jazz. Some days I prefer old school R&B. Of course, that can be risky if I have a deadline because I might find myself dancing around the studio instead of painting! When I got to the teen years in my memoir, I played a lot of the songs I used to listen to on my record player, stuff by the Supremes, the Temptations, the Beatles, the Mamas and the Papas. It’s amazing how music can transport you to a long ago time. There I was, back in my room in that small apartment in Queens, listening to music and starting to imagine my future.

One of my favorite ideas in Harry Potter — are we still allowed to talk about J.K. Rowling? — is the portkey. The object that transports you to another time and place. Those exist in our muggle world, too. And for me, albums, songs, have that same ability. 

That’s why my husband and I will never get rid of our albums or our turntable! We used to have a jukebox to play our big collection of 45s. It finally broke but we still play 45s. 

Marisabina, I want to thank you for this book, this long career of yours, and the time you gave us today. I enjoyed every second of getting to know you better.

Same here, Jimmy. And thanks for letting me blab on about my book!