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Middle Grade Graphic Novel Memoir – Sylvie

 

 

SYLVIE

Written and illustrated by Sylvie Kantorovitz

(Walker Books US; $24.99, Ages 9-12)

 

 

As we approach the one-year anniversary of Sylvie’s publication, I had to share an overdue review of Sylvie Kantorovitz’s memoir that I only recently read. I’ve been playing catch-up following an extremely busy year during which I couldn’t help but notice how many excellent graphic novels were released.

Sylvie Kantorovitz’s compelling middle-grade graphic novel memoir about growing up in the late 1960s and 1970s France was just the book I needed to read last week. It didn’t hurt that I’m a Francophile, but even readers who don’t know the first thing about life in France will finish Sylvie feeling much more familiar with it.

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Interior art from Sylvie written and illustrated by Sylvie Kantorovitz, Walker Books US ©2021.

 

While Kantorovitz didn’t set out to write and illustrate a memoir (per her Author’s Note), memories of her childhood rose to the surface during her initial approach to drafting the novel and soon her own story took on a new life. Her candor, ambiguity at times, and relatability are what make Sylvie so rich, like the perfect crème brûlée or éclair au chocolat. Add to that her irresistible artwork (including maps which I adore, translated words to help non-French speakers, and other charming details such as chestnuts at the end of every chapter/section) and you have a novel as fresh and real as any contemporary one.

As a young girl whose family came to France from Morocco, Sylvie had to deal with anti-immigrant attitudes as well as anti-Semitism being the only Jewish family where she lived. And where did she live? Well, that’s another aspect of the novel that makes it stand it apart. Sylvie’s father was a principal at a men’s teaching college so the family was given housing on campus. The vast grounds of the school suited kids like Sylvie and her younger brother whose imaginations meant there was never a dull moment.

 

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Interior art from Sylvie written and illustrated by Sylvie Kantorovitz, Walker Books US ©2021.

 

Growing up, Sylvie faced the same dilemmas kids face today whether that’s friends moving away, friends you have doubts about or friends you crush on, frustration at sharing a bedroom, fitting in, finding your passion, and figuring out what you want to do the rest of your life. On top of that, when Sylvie’s father changed jobs, Sylvie’s family moved away from the teaching college to a city closer to Paris. While that meant leaving behind lovely memories it also meant new opportunities.

What I loved most about Sylvie was how introspective she was. She knew how much she loved looking after her brothers and sister―we see her family grow from one sibling to three―and other young kids. Maybe I’d be a good teacher she wondered. She thrived on alone time in her room doing art and taking outside art classes. Maybe I could be an artist but could I support myself that way? And she continually wondered what she would do in the future when her peers seemed to know exactly what their path in life was. She did not like the pressure she felt from her mother to either find a rich man to marry or pursue a career in a field that didn’t interest her. She was nurtured by a caring, inspiring father and confused by a moody, often angry mother while she navigated the important coming-of-age period of her childhood. The scenes when her parents argued and the question of the big “D” or divorce arose is something many readers will understand. When she once asked her father why he didn’t leave her mother he said he loved her, something Sylvie found difficult to fathom.

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Interior art from Sylvie written and illustrated by Sylvie Kantorovitz, Walker Books US ©2021.

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I expect many readers will enjoy reading about Sylvie’s quest for independence. Like when she finally gets a room of her own by moving upstairs to an unused storage room in the college building where her family lived. Whenever Sylvie had opportunities to study and practice art, the joy jumped off the pages right into my heart. Moments like those, captured so lovingly in the cartoon-style artwork and text, brought Sylvie’s experiences to life. I hope readers will find relevance and comfort in Sylvie’s honest and heartfelt story. The book is available in hardcover, paperback, and Ebook and is the reassuring read we could all use right now.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Please click here to read a sample chapter. 

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An Interview With Kirsten W. Larson Author of A True Wonder

 

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH

KIRSTEN W. LARSON

AUTHOR OF

A TRUE WONDER:

The Comic Book Hero Who Changed Everything

ILLUSTRATED BY KATY WU

(Clarion Books; $17.99, Ages 4 to 7)

 

 

A True Wonder cover

Starred reviews – Booklist and Kirkus

 

 

SUMMARY

“A behind-the-scenes look at the creation and evolution of Wonder Woman, the iconic character who has inspired generations of girls and women as a symbol of female strength and power.

Perhaps the most popular female superhero of all time, Wonder Woman was created by Bill Marston in 1941, upon the suggestion of his wife, Elizabeth. Wonder Woman soon showed what women can do—capture enemy soldiers, defeat criminals, become president, and more. Her path since has inspired women and girls while echoing their ever-changing role in society. Now a new group of devoted young fans enjoy her latest films, Wonder Woman and Wonder Woman 1984, and await a third installation being planned for theatrical release. This exceptional book raises up the many women who played a part in her evolution, from Elizabeth Marston to writer Joye Hummel to director Patty Jenkins, and makes clear that the fight for gender equality is still on-going.”

 

INTERVIEW

Hi Kirsten! Welcome to Good Reads With Ronna and congratulations on the publication of A TRUE WONDER: The Comic Book Hero Who Changed Everything, a truly wonderful picture book that I’m so excited to discuss with you, especially on your launch day! Like you, I grew up on comic books (Archie) although to be honest the only superhero I followed as a child was Superman. Somehow I came late to the game with Wonder Woman. Patty Jenkins’ first film was my first introduction to the backstory.

 

GOODREADSWITHRONNA: Can you believe the young girl in the 1970s who was a Lynda Carter fan is the one who’s written about Wonder Woman?

KIRSTEN W. LARSON: I wasn’t someone who always wanted to be an author when I grew up, so I feel lucky to have stumbled on a career later in life that feeds my curiosity. I love research and that thrill of feeling I’ve gotten a book “just right” in terms of voice, structure, etc.

 

GRWR: I’m curious if once the idea hit you to write the history of Wonder Woman, you knew you’d approach it with a comic book style format (which I ADORED by the way)? Did you do the research first and then decide how to find your way into sharing the story or did you always know how you’d do it?

KWL: I always envisioned this as a biography of the character of Wonder Woman, showing her character arc across the decades. This was a rare book for me. The finished book is very close to the original drafts. The main difference was the addition of some of the more modern incarnations of Wonder Woman that bring the character up to the present. I always envisioned comic-book style illustrations, but of course, the choice to illustrate the book that was entirely up to editor Jennifer Greene, the art director, and illustrator Katy Wu.

 

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Interior spread from A True Wonder written by Kirsten W. Larson and illustrated by Katy Wu, Clarion Books ©2021.

 

GRWR: A TRUE WONDER could not have been an easy manuscript to write for someone used to the more traditional nonfiction structure. What was that like having to write a script with setting, narrative, thoughts, speech, and sound effects?

KWL: You may be surprised to know that I wrote A TRUE WONDER just like any narrative nonfiction picture book. I did have a global illustration note suggesting the comic book style, as well as the trading card format for the sidebars about significant people who contributed to the Wonder Woman character. But it was illustrator Katy Wu who broke out the illustrations into panels and dropped the quotes I included into speech bubbles. She deserves all the credit.

 

GRWR: Whoa, I sure hope Katy sees this and all your compliments because the art and prose work seamlessly. Did you and the illustrator Katy Wu get to collaborate?

KWL: Katy and I didn’t collaborate at all, which is fairly typical for picture books. She did all her own research. I provided some minor comments on her dummy, but that’s it. We’ve only corresponded since we started marketing the book.

 

GRWR: I am so impressed! So, do you have a favorite spread?

KWL: Yes! The final spread, which talks about how Wonder Woman inspires us to become heroes of our own stories is my hands-down favorite. I tear up every time. Katy illustrated it with a diverse group of women, and it is perfect.

 

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Interior spread from A True Wonder written by Kirsten W. Larson and illustrated by Katy Wu, Clarion Books ©2021.

 

GRWR: Based on your previous STEM books and NASA background, writing about Wonder Woman is a departure for you though it is definitely a STEAM read. What are your feelings about that, and do you think you might write more non-STEM books in the future?

KWL: I love to write about underdogs and women who defy expectations, and the character of Wonder Woman falls into that theme. Plus, comic books are a big part of geek culture. Just think about how much time the Big Bang Theory characters spent at the comic bookstore, or trying to get tickets for San Diego Comic Con.

 

GRWR: LOL! In A TRUE WONDER I learned SO much about the early days of comic books, especially how the business was populated by white men keen on keeping superheroes men. Yet it was an exceptionally enlightened man, Bill Marston, with a wife working full-time as the family bread-winner who pitched the idea of Wonder Woman to Charlie Gaines of All-American Comics, the precursor to DC. Tell us more about that fateful turn of events in the male-dominated industry.

KWL: This probably won’t surprise anyone, but comic books have been under attack almost since their inception. Just before Wonder Woman was introduced, parents and educators complained about the violence in comics. They argued that comics were a poor substitute for classic literature too (sound familiar)? But Marston thought comics could be a force for good. It was his wife, Elizabeth Marston, who suggested the idea of a female superhero. And that’s what Bill Marston pitched – a female superhero who he hoped would be a good influence on children.

 

 

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Interior spread from A True Wonder written by Kirsten W. Larson and illustrated by Katy Wu, Clarion Books ©2021.

 

GRWR: Women writers and staffers behind the emergence of Wonder Woman ultimately played crucial roles in empowering the character and women in general during WWII when a majority of men were off fighting. You mention more than a handful and even write in your back matter about Joye Hummel (who wrote under a male pen name) and several others who made an impact on the representation of Wonder Woman including Gloria Steinem. Can you speak to how they contributed to feminism?

KWL: Through the years and often behind the scenes and uncredited, women have contributed to Wonder Woman as authors, artists, editors, and consultants. These women were ahead of their time in what continues to be a male-dominated industry. At the same time, second-wave feminists like Gloria Steinem and Joanne Edgar grew up reading Wonder Woman comics and sort of adopted her as their mascot, putting her on the first cover of Ms. Magazine. Even today, we tap into Wonder Woman as a short-hand way to talk about strong and powerful women and sisterhood.

 

GRWR: What would like your young readers to take away from reading A TRUE WONDER?

KWL: I hope that children will find a way to channel their inner superheroes and make their own contributions to their communities and the world. We need everyday heroes now more than ever.

 

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Interior spread from A True Wonder written by Kirsten W. Larson and illustrated by Katy Wu, Clarion Books ©2021.

 

GRWR: Let’s talk craft. I read in Storystorm 2020 (Kirsten Larson | Writing for Kids (While Raising Them) (taralazar.com) that you turn to walks in nature for inspiration. I’d love to hear more about what you do to find story ideas and then how you proceed after an idea strikes you.

KWL: I find story ideas everywhere: books, movies, magazine articles, museums, you name it. Normally I do some initial research to learn whether the resources I need (like primary sources) are readily available, and to figure out if someone is already writing a book about the subject. If everything checks out, I start with secondary sources to get context, then dive into primary sources to hear the characters’ voices. The research normally guides me to a structure and voice, but there’s always a lot of experimentation. And walking, along with showers, meditating, and mentor texts, are great for when I get stuck during the writing process.

 

GRWR: That’s so helpful to know. Do you have a writing routine and a preferred place to write?

KWL: I write all over the place–in the living room, outside on my back patio, in my office. I get up before everyone else and try to write for at least an hour Monday through Friday after checking in with my accountability partner. Most days I dedicate another two hours to writing before turning to other things.

 

GRWR: What’s your go-to creativity beverage or comfort food when feeling frustrated?

KWL: Coffee, coffee, coffee.

 

GRWR: You’re also a regular contributor for STEM Tuesday online at STEM Tuesday – From The Mixed Up Files. Can you speak to that experience?

KWL: I work with so many amazing contributors on STEM Tuesday, led by Jen Swanson. Each month, team members put together a themed book list plus classroom activities and ELA/writing activities. The last week of the month we have an interview with an author and a book giveaway. I write about writing. There is so much creativity happening in nonfiction and STEM writing right now. I love showing educators how they can use STEM books to teach writing craft.

 

 

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Interior spread from A True Wonder written by Kirsten W. Larson and illustrated by Katy Wu, Clarion Books ©2021.

 

GRWR: I agree that STEM reads and nonfiction have never been more exciting than right now. What’s a recent nonfiction book that you couldn’t put down?

KWL: My current favorite read is SURVIVOR TREE by Marcie Colleen and Aaron Becker. The interplay of art and lyrical text are stunning. In fact, I’m using it as a mentor text in a class I’m teaching at The Writing Barn next month.

 

GRWR: What’s on the horizon?

KWL: Next year, illustrator Katherine Roy and I have THE FIRE OF STARS with Chronicle Books. It’s a dual narrative picture book about Cecilia Payne, who discovered the composition of stars, told alongside the process of star formation. After that, I have two more books under contract but not yet announced. One is a lyrical, STEM book for younger readers, the second is a middle-grade historical fiction, which I did write in full graphic novel script form.

 

GRWR: Thanks tons for taking the time today to chat, Kirsten. We could not be more excited about A TRUE WONDER and wish you every success with it. And happy book birthday, too! 

KWL: Thanks for having me, Ronna! It’s been my pleasure. I love to connect with folks at my website Kirsten-w-larson.com and on social media @kirstenwlarson.

 

 

PURCHASE KIRSTEN’S BOOK

Preorder A TRUE WONDER through Once Upon a Time Bookstore for an
autographed copy plus a 6 x 9 art postcard designed by illustrator Katy Wu.

https://www.shoponceuponatime.com/autographed-books-kirsten-w-larson

TEACHER’S GUIDE  HERE

 

SOCIAL MEDIA

Kirsten-w-larson.com

Twitter: @KirstenWLarson

Instagram: @KirstenWLarson

 

katycwwu.tumblr.com

Twitter: @thewildkat

Instagram: @thewildkat

 

KirstenWLarson headshot
Author Kirsten W. Larson                  Photo ©Tammie Halcomb

BRIEF BIO

Kirsten used to work with rocket scientists at NASA. Now she writes books for curious kids. Kirsten is the author of WOOD, WIRE, WINGS: EMMA LILIAN TODD INVENTS AN AIRPLANE, illustrated by Tracy Subisak (Calkins Creek, 2020), A TRUE WONDER: The Comic Book Hero Who Changed Everything (Clarion, Fall 2021), illustrated by Katy Wu, and THE FIRE OF STARS: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars Are Made Of, illustrated by Katherine Roy (Chronicle, Fall 2022), as well as 25 nonfiction books for the school and library market. Sign up for her monthly newsletter here.

 

 

 

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