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The Shelf Care Interview: Aliza Layne and Gabby Rivera

Welcome to the Shelf Care Interview, an occasional conversation series where Booklist talks to book people. This Shelf Care Interview is sponsored by Simon & Schuster and BOOM! Studios.

In this episode of the Shelf Care Interview, a special installment in celebration of Booklist‘s Graphic Novels in Libraries Month extravaganza, Books for Youth associate editor Ronny Khuri speaks with Aliza Layne, author and illustrator of Beetle and the Hollowbones, and Gabby Rivera, author of Juliet Takes a Breath.

You can listen to this Shelf Care Interview here. This transcript has been edited for clarity.

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RONNY KHURI: Today I am talking to Aliza Layne. Aliza is a cartoonist, illustrator, and storyteller. She is the creator of Demon Street, a long-form fantasy webcomic for all ages. Her Halloween costumes have elicited the phrases “theatrical” and “don’t you think you’re going a little overboard?” and “oh, we remember you from last year.” Beetle and the Hollowbones, which is out now from Simon & Schuster, is her first graphic novel. Thank you so much for joining me, Aliza.

ALIZA LAYNE: Hi! Thanks so much for having me.

After that intro, I feel like I do have to ask—assuming Halloween is not canceled this year, which I don’t think it will be—do you have a costume picked out yet?

I do! My roommate and I have a horrible plan where my roommate’s going to wear a skeleton mask and a whole long, elegant original costume, and I have a ginormous pumpkin head that I wear every couple Halloweens, because I can’t let it go because it’s so good. I made this myself. It’s made out of a foam carve-able pumpkin head from Michaels, and I carved my own jack-o’-lantern face in it and installed a yellow mesh inside so you can’t see my face and I can see out of it a little bit. Then the inside of the mask is lit. When I sit down, people cannot tell that I’m a human person. They think that I’m a lawn ornament, so when I move, they get very scared, which is wonderful. I love doing that. Little kids don’t care. Little kids are so used to being put in a situation where they don’t understand what’s happening that it doesn’t even matter to them that I’m moving, but middle schoolers are terrified of me.

That is perfect. So you are the real deal when it comes to costumes, it sounds like. That actually fits very thematically with Beetle and the Hollowbones. Do you mind telling us real quick, for those who haven’t read it yet, what it’s about?

Not at all. Beetle is about a small goblin witch named Beetle, who lives in, like, a Halloween world. Her best friend named Blob Ghost is spiritually imprisoned inside of the local mall, which sucks and isn’t a good mall, and they can’t have fun in there anymore because none of the stores are good. In the quest to get Blob Ghost’s soul untethered from the mall, they have to contend with the fact that the mall is about to be bulldozed.

They don’t care so much that the mall is going to be torn down; she just cares about saving her friend. As that’s going on, the person who’s bulldozing the mall happens to be Beetle’s crush’s aunt and mentor. So there’s a little bit of an interpersonal issue there where Beetle would really love to get this girl on her side and would really love to hang out with her a lot more, but she might be evil.

At the top of your Twitter page, you have a banner that collects blurbs from book critics, which is fabulous. If you’ll indulge me, I’ll read a few.

Oh yeah, of course.

Of course, we have Booklist who wrote “goblin”; Publishers Weekly, “goblin”: Kirkus Reviews, “goblin”; your wife, of course, said “goblin.”

I manually checked each review to make sure they had said goblin at some point.

I’m sensing a connection between you and goblins, and of course, Beetle is a goblin. Can you talk about your history with goblins? What are some of your goblin influences? And how did Beetle’s design come about?

I think goblins are an interesting beast. They exist all over the world in different forms depending on where in the world you are. There are usually goblins under some name, which I think is really cool and not something that has been culturally done to death, which was something that I was thinking about. Mostly, I think goblins are an interesting girl to have as your protagonist. The fact of being a goblin kind of lets Beetle be weirder, more animalistic, more cat-like, which is how a lot of little girls actually think and behave. I see a lot of little girls in media who—actually, recently it’s been a lot better, but when I was growing up, a lot of girls in media were either very princess-like and very good or they were resisting the idea of being princess-like and being good.

I think there’s a little bit more to say about being a girl and being like a little creature animal who pretends to be a horse or is obsessed with bugs or is obsessed with dead things by the side of the road. I think there’s a girl-ness there that is really fun to explore through the lens of being a goblin, but goblin is also a really flexible category, so you could be an elegant goblin.

It’s also a Halloween creature that you don’t see that much. I wanted the book to be a Halloween book, and I wanted to play with Halloween creatures without necessarily doing vampires. I have obviously nothing against vampires.

Of course.

I love them, but I wanted to do a different type of Halloween creature, one that wasn’t so done, and I thought a goblin would be an interesting choice, too.

Yeah. There was something very fresh about it to me. It kind of captures that fantasy/fairy tale feel but with more of an edge, like you were describing. So beyond goblin lore, can you talk about some of your other creative inspirations?

Yeah, totally. I read pretty widely. Lately, I’m reading a lot more fantasy and sci-fi for adults, but when I was a kid, I also read whatever I could get my hands on, and I’m still drawn to works for kids. But Beetle in particular is really inspired by Dark Crystal and by Labyrinth, which I think are my biggest goblin influences because they’re so weird and interesting, but it’s also kind of bringing in other stuff. In particular, I’m really inspired by Discworld, which is not something that I’ve seen pulled in reviews of my work, so I think I hid it well, but everything about witches in Beetle is heavily inspired by the way that Discworld witches work.

I’m also super inspired by anime and particularly Sailor Moon and, actually, Little Witch Academia, which came out maybe five years ago and is one of my favorite series because it plays with the witch stuff and it’s just a super fun and cute and engaging piece of media that is super girl-focused, which I love to see. I love to see media where all of the major characters are girls. I actually got asked about that by an interviewer recently: “Why aren’t there any boys in your book?” And I was like, “Uh, because once you make all of the important characters girls, there isn’t any room left. There’s no room.”

Well, that’s a perfect answer. And, unfortunately we are out of time. I do like to ask though, for the sake of the comics world, if there are, other than Demon Street, any webcomics out there that you can recommend to our listeners?

Oh, totally. I think the main one that I would recommend is probably Paranatural. My friend Zack Morrison does Paranatural, and it is probably one of the the funniest things I’ve ever read. It’s about kids in middle school who have powers, and they get inducted into a society that is dealing with an ancient evil that sleeps under their town. It is legitimately a laugh-a-minute. The snappy joke-telling of Beetle is entirely inspired by Paranatural. It’s so funny. It also leans into everything that is really fun for a kid to read, like everything that happens in the story is always going to be the coolest thing you could think of, and it’s always paying itself off in a really satisfying way. The story is ongoing. So that’s definitely the main one that I would recommend.

Awesome. That sounds very much like my jam, so I will definitely be checking that out, and everyone else should, too! Thank you so much, Aliza, for chatting with me. This was short but very fun.

Thanks for having me.

And thank you, everyone else, for listening to the Shelf Care Interview. This Shelf Care Interview was sponsored by Simon & Schuster, publisher of Beetle and the Hollowbones, by Aliza Layne, available now. Happy reading, everybody.

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RONNY KHURI: Gabby Rivera is a Bronx-born queer Puerto Rican babe on a mission to create the wildest, most fun stories ever. She was the first Latina to write for Marvel Comics, penning the solo series America, about America Chavez, a portal-punching, queer Latina powerhouse. In 2017, Gabby was named one of the top comic creators by the Syfy Network and one of NBC’s #Pride30 Innovators. Her debut novel, Juliet Takes a Breath, was re-published in 2019 by Penguin Random House and is now being adapted into a graphic novel, available this November from BOOM! Studios. Gabby now makes magic on both coasts, currently residing in California. She writes for all the sweet baby queers—and her mom. Juliet Takes a Breath, out this November from BOOM! Studios, is a graphic-novel adaptation of her debut novel. Thank you so much for joining me, Gabby.

GABBY RIVERA: Oh, Ronny, I’m so excited to be here. Thank you for having me.

If you don’t mind—for those who are not yet familiar—can you start by introducing Juliet? What’s it about?

Juliet Takes a Breath is my first novel. It is about a 19-year-old queer, chubby Puerto Rican girl named Juliet Milagros Palante. It is about the summer of her nineteenth year, where she explores feminism through an internship with her favorite author, Harlowe Brisbane, author of Raging Flower: Empowering Your Pussy by Empowering Your Minds. Juliet embarks on a wild internship with her, after coming out to her Puerto Rican family. She spends the summer in Portland, Oregon.

For the graphic-novel adaptation, you got to collaborate with artist Celia Moscote. Given that this feels like a pretty personal story, with themes of identity and coming of age and family, was it hard to hand it over to somebody else?

Yes and no, right? I have had Juliet in my life for over a decade now. We indie published in 2016, but I had been working on her for many years beforehand. When it came time to do the graphic novel, I was actually excited to have someone like Celia come in and just offer a fresh take on everything and see what she was able to turn the scenes into—and just how she envisioned the landscapes and the narrative itself. Yes, it was a little intimidating to share this world of Juliet Takes a Breath with somebody else, but ultimately it was perfect. Sometimes you just got to know when to open up and let go.

Did you and Celia have much back-and-forth, or was it more of just a hand off and you do your thing?

Well, at that time, I was working on b.b. free with BOOM! Studios, so there was a lot of stuff going on. At one point, Celia just had the book and was kind of working through it. I was working on the narrative and the flow of the graphic novel, because a graphic novel is going to read differently. Each time that I get a chance to reimagine or re-put out Juliet, I love the idea of opening it up and trying little things that are new here and there, and at every turn also giving Juliet more power and more agency. While I was trying to figure out the plot and the time line magic, Celia had the text and was working on the artistry, you know?

You know as well as anyone that graphic is quite a different experience from prose. Is there anything that you think stood out in the graphic adaptation, something that was added that wasn’t there before?

In the novel, Harlowe takes up so much room, rightfully so, in a sense, because that’s the purpose of her character. She is the epitome of hippie white feminism, right? She takes up a lot of space, but in the graphic novel, I wanted to shift that and not have Harlowe take up as much space without lessening the impact of how she ultimately racializes Juliet and causes a big stirrup in their relationship. That was one thing I definitely wanted to do and give Juliet more room to make stronger decisions.

I think the first version of the prose novel came out in 2016?

Yes.

Then again in 2019 with Penguin Random House, and now it’s late 2020. Obviously a lot has changed in the world in the last five years. A lot has changed in the last five days.

Lord. This is the year that just won’t stop. I’m getting ready for the zombies and the aliens because literally they’re the last ones. They’re late to the party at this point, you know?

I think that’s very wise. Can you speak a little bit more about how your view of the story, of Juliet’s story, has changed in the most recent version?

With Juliet Takes a Breath, that was my first novel. I started writing it when I was 23, 24. Identity politics and issues of gender and all sorts of conversations that we’re having now on Twitter and in the discourse, academic and otherwise, weren’t really a part of her world. That original iteration of it could always be expanded. You know what I mean? It was the best I could do at the time to allow space for Juliet to have all of these questions about the world around her. As I look, not just in the last five years but in a decade, what have I learned? Who would Juliet be now? I can’t change and I won’t change the book completely because there’s definitely room for folks who are just stepping into their power and just stepping into deconstructing the world around them when it comes to race and gender and sexuality and ability—and just all the things.

I wanted Juliet to have more moments to shine and to really take on a moment where she’s like, “No, this is wrong, and I will not let you racialize me. I will use my voice, and I don’t need you in order to have my self-love-determined revelation and happy ending.” The ending is different in many ways. For folks who’ve read the original version of Juliet, I think that’s going to be one of the reasons why you all definitely have to come through and pick up this graphic novel because the ending has shifted in a way that I think is so much fun and so pure, and real, and it speaks to young girls of color right now, speaks to the agency that we have now, given all the work that has been done in the last 20 or so years.

What are some of your biggest creative inspirations, whether it relates to Juliet or just you as a creator?

My biggest inspirations are my friends who are putting their work and their energies and their magic out into the world. I’m always giving big love to my friend, Junauda Petrus, who is an activist and an artist and a writer out of Minneapolis.

She’s got one of the most gorgeous books, The Stars and the Blackness Between Us. That is just such a deep love story between two Black girls and also a book that explores what it means to see, as a young Black kid, older Black folks incarcerated and working in the system in that way, you know?

I also am always going to love the work of The Unapologetic Street series, by Johanna Toruño. She’s a street artist who puts up different murals and different posters with poetry and politics up on the streets, even during COVID at this point.

Yesika Salgado, who is just one of the top poets right now coming out of L.A. There’s so much inspiration. There’s so many folks that are doing incredible work. My friend, Lorraine Avila, who wrote Malcriada, she’s working with Zahira Kelly to put together a trippy, Black-people-on-shrooms, talking-to-the-ancestors graphic novel. There’s just a lot of good, good energy in the middle of all of this. There’s a lot of good creative energy everywhere.

This Shelf Care Interview was sponsored by BOOM! Studios, publisher of the Juliet Takes a Breath graphic novel, by Gabby Rivera, available this November.

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About the Author:

Ronny Khuri is an associate editor for Books for Youth at Booklist. He has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University. His dæmon is a Siamese cat named Tiger Lily.

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