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2014 Preview Interview: First Second

What does 2014 hold for graphic novel publisher First Second? I tracked down senior editor Calista Brill and editorial director Mark Seigel to ask.

Travis: Greetings from the Mitten state! How did 2013 go for First Second? Any surprises?

Calista Brill: It was a terrific year, though that’s not really a surprise, given the lineup of books we had. I was pretty wowed by the response to Lucy Knisley’s RELISH (grades 10 and up), but again, when you go into a year cheerfully assuming all your books will will be huge hits, it’s hard to be too surprised when they then…are.

Mark Seigel: 2013 was a watershed year for us; some big sellers, but our proudest success was that the whole list carried the year. Some very new experiments, like RELISH, have helped reach a great many not-yet-comics-readers, and that is an important part of the First Second mission. Other books have broken new ground in new ways, like our #1 New York Times bestseller, BATTLING BOY (grades 5 and up). Its author, Paul Pope, has been a major star in the comics world, but with this, his ambitious, youngest project, he has been embraced by libraries and the mainstream book trade.

Is there a First Second book from 2013 that you felt caught on more than others?

MS: BOXERS & SAINTS (grades 7 and up) has been a magical project from day one. And the magic appears to be contagious: Gene Luen Yang is cementing his place in America’s literary landscape. His second National Book Award nomination, winning the L.A. Times Book Prize, and now a Boston Globe Horn Book Honor place BOXERS & SAINTS among the treasures of literature. Who would have predicted that a two-book boxed set about a Chinese war most of us had never heard of—would get five starred reviews and become a runaway bestseller?

Well, I’ve been waiting 12 months. Last year I asked if there was someone you hoped would make a graphic novel someday and Mark said, and I quote, “Yes! …She’s working on it right now, so mum’s the word.” Can you spill the beans yet?

MS: That must have been Jillian Tamaki. Or maybe it was Rainbow Rowell. Both of them are doing just that, at First Second! Jillian’s project is with her cousin Mariko Tamaki, and it’s out now—it’s beautiful and true and astonishing in every way, and has garnered SIX starred reviews (I didn’t know that was possible.) It’s called THIS ONE SUMMER (grades 7 and up | out now).

Let’s get into the books you have coming out in 2014. Anything for the K-2 (ages 5-7) crowd?

CB: Boy howdy. In the spring we had THE GLORKIAN WARRIOR DELIVERS A PIZZA (grades K-4 | out now), James Kochalka’s finest work to date. You’ve never met a more lovable—or less competent—space explorer than the Glorkian Warrior, I promise you.

MS: THE RETURN OF ZITA THE SPACE GIRL (grades 3-7 | out now) concludes a trilogy beloved everywhere… We get lots of photos of Zita cosplayers—and Ben Hatke is fast becoming a major children’s author. We’re also publishing his first picture book: JULIA’S HOUSE FOR LOST CREATURES (grades K-3 | out September 2), another wondrous thing for the younger set.

How about for upper elementary – grades 3-4 (ages 8-10)?

CB: In the winter we’ve got HIDDEN (grades 1-5 | out now), a story about the Holocaust from a very gentle, very authentic child’s point of view.

MS: Yes, HIDDEN is an amazing work that serves to first broach the conversation about the Holocaust.  With APHRODITE (grades 4-9 | out now), George O’Connor continues to build an indispensable, essential OLYMPIANS series—which a growing army of fans among elementary students, teachers, and Greek myth scholars, because the research is so bona fide thorough!

It’s a tremendous thing that’s unfolding with THE OLYMPIANS. In October, we’ll be releasing a box set of the first six, but ultimately, George O’Connor’s vision is for a set of twelve for each of the major gods.

And one more to mention absolutely: THE STRATFORD ZOO MIDNIGHT REVIEW PRESENTS: MACBETH (grades 2-5 | out September 30).

Ian Lendler and Zack Giallongo take us to the Stratford-on-Avon zoo, and to the performance staged by the animals. The essence of Macbeth’s plot is there to be discovered, but they manage to channel the spirit of the original Muppet Show and it’s just plain hilarious.

Any books for older kids? Grades 5 (age 10) and up?

CB: Let’s talk some more about Zita the Space Girl! Book three of this beloved trilogy is coming out in the Spring, and it’s Zita’s greatest adventure yet. We’re talking prison breaks. We’re talking space whales. We’re talking long-lost friends saving the day. I’m telling you, it’s aces.

And for the Battling Boy fans out there, we’ve got a new book set in the world of Battling Boy! The first of two volumes exploring the backstory of Aurora West (grades 5-12) comes out in the Fall.

What about the little ones (ages 0-4)?

CB: We’ve got three honest-to-gosh picture books coming up, too.

Aron Nels Steinke and Ariel Cohn have created a fantastic magical zoo adventure in THE ZOO BOX (grades K-2 | out September 2).


MS: SLEEP TIGHT, ANNA BANANA! (grades PreK-2 | out June 17) is a picture book and an early reader comic by a highly successful duo of French cartoonists—who also happen to be a mother and her son. It is seriously the cutest, most delicious, rambunctious bedtime treat I know. And there are more coming.

Anything for kids in the negative numbers?

CB: Yes, if by kids in the negative numbers you mean GROWN UPS! See what I did there?

MS: As always, First Second has offerings for adults, and this year, some gems that include HOW THE WORLD WAS (out August 12)—Emmanuel Guibert’s glowing memoir of Alan Cope’s youth in 1930s California, with artwork in a league of its own;

ANDRE THE GIANT (out now), Box Brown’s remarkable biography of a very large and very large-hearted pop culture icon;

and Danica Novgorodoff’s most affecting and delightful work yet: THE UNDERTAKING OF LILY CHEN (out now).

Both in artwork and writing, this ambitious work of adult fiction proves Novgorodoff is a rare talent, a true artist, a great voice. And it’s full of deliciously dark humor.

What’s the weirdest book you have coming out in 2014?

CB: I’m going to nominate ABOVE THE DREAMLESS DEAD (out September 23), which I hesitate to call WEIRD but will happily call UNUSUAL and CATEGORY-BUSTING. This is an anthology, edited by Chris Duffy, of poetry written by soldiers fighting in World War I. The poetry is illustrated, interpreted, and adapted by about twenty cartoonists, making this (to my knowledge) the first ever poetry-as-comics anthology. The work of the Trench Poets — poets who fought and often died in WWI — is something I’ve always had a passionate interest in, so I was really delighted when Chris came on board to edit this anthology for us — just in time for the centenary of World War I. Warning: this book is beautiful and illuminating and terrifically moving, but it’s not for the faint of heart, and it’s also not for younger readers. Older teens and adults only, please.

What’s the biggest crowd-pleaser?

MS: THIS ONE SUMMER seems to unleash a lot of passion everywhere. You know when we’re getting a book ready, we sometimes send it out for endorsements from other authors. We sent out THIS ONE SUMMER the way we usually do—mail off twenty of them, in the hopes two, maybe three of them will give us a blurb. In this case, we sent the Tamakis’ book out . . . and every last one of them returned a quote to us! It was embarrassing: we didn’t have room for all of them on the back cover.

It looks like you have more books for younger readers this year – am I imagining that? If not, is it intentional, or did things just turn out that way?

MS: First Second has always been aimed at all three age categories: children, teens, and adults. In every season we try and have offerings for each one—like building three strands of the First Second collection, simultaneously. On the young end, ever since our Nursery Rhyme comics, we’ve discovered we could push younger than we knew. So you’re seeing more picture-book age projects appearing. First Second’s picture books privilege comics authors, but in a picture-book-y format.

As a fan of the incredible (and fairly unknown) true story of Shackleton’s expedition to the South Pole, I’m excited to see you have a book on the topic. Is there a back story there, or was Nick Bertozzi just drawn to the material?

MS: Nick Bertozzi’s passion (one of them!) is the great explorers. He gave us the superb LEWIS & CLARK, and now this marvelous SHACKLETON (grades 7 and up | out June 17). It is an astounding true story, and Bertozzi’s treatment of it is just masterful. His writing and his artwork have this disarming immediacy and clarity that make for a super-immersive reading experience. I feel like I have memories of being trapped in the ice with Shackleton’s crew. It’s really extraordinary non-fiction, and Bertozzi is way overdue to be recognized as one of America’s greatest living graphic novelists.

Anything on the distant horizon that has you excited?

MS: YES, pretty much always… Many things. But to mention one: Scott McCloud’s THE SCULPTOR is coming. Soon.

Thanks to Mark, Calista, and Gina Gagliano for the preview.

About Travis Jonker

Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian in Michigan. He writes reviews (and the occasional article or two) for School Library Journal and is a member of the 2014 Caldecott committee. You can email Travis at scopenotes@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.