Interview: Jimmy Gownley and Amelia Rules!
Jimmy Gownley rules. Why? At the beginning of October, Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing announced that it had acquired his graphic novel series AMELIA RULES!, a favorite among both critics and fans. Called “a PEANUTS for the 21st century” by Comic Buyers Guide, AMELIA RULES! had been self-published by Gownley’s Renaissance Press since 2001.
Shortly after that I met Jimmy at a San Diego Comic-Con and our first conversation kind of went like this:
Scott: Hey, people should be doing more comics like yours! Kids will love this!
Jimmy: I agree!
And from there Jimmy went on to start Kids Love Comics, an organization dedicated to raising awareness of graphic novels with teachers, librarians and parents. AMELIA RULES! has amassed multiple award nominations and rave reviews and has been even adapted into a musical. And now Amelia moves to the next level …
Scott: Tell us who Amelia is and why does she rule?
Jimmy: I wish I had some kind of high-concept answer for this, but I don’t. Simply put, Amelia’s a real kid and has to deal with a lot of stuff – like every real kid. But she is also full of humor and empathy. She’s inquisitive about her world and loyal to her friends. That makes her rule.
S: Could you provide some background on the deal with Simon & Schuster? How did they get in touch with you? What are the future plans for the book and will there be changes to the look/design, format or size of AMELIA RULES!?
J: I self-published AMELIA RULES! and another (Shades of Gray) for many, many years. And as much as I loved that process and found it incredibly gratifying in so many ways, there came a time when I knew that, in order to be fair to the AMELIA RULES! property we had to find someone who could take it to the next level. My agent, Judith Hansen, guided us through the process. The most important thing for me was to find the perfect ‘home’ for AMELIA RULES! – a publisher that really understood what I was doing – I could not be more thrilled than working with Simon & Schuster. As for changes to the design, etc… I am designing new covers for the books. The format and size will remain the same.
S: You’ve been working tirelessly on AMELIA RULES! since 2001 – how does it feel to have the hard work pay off with this kind of deal?
J: It’s beyond gratifying – In some ways, it’s total validation for what I’ve worked so hard for. But on the other hand, I’ve been able to do exactly what I’ve wanted, in the medium that I’ve loved my whole life for years now. So I’ve been lucky all along.
S: From where does the inspiration for the stories of AMELIA RULES! come? I know you have children – do you often test out stories or jokes on them?
J: No, my daughters are only 5, so they’re a bit young for the book, although they do like to look at my pages as I’m drawing and suggest their own dialog, which is often hilarious because it has no context. I definitely stay away from the Dennis the Menace scenario of basing stories on my own kids. I have very clear and vivid memories from my own childhood and I really draw on that. The stories certainly aren’t autobiographical but I’m able to hone in on certain childhood reactions and emotions, and that really helps with my writing.
S: AMELIA RULES! is a humor series but also deals with real life issues like divorce. How do you walk the line of keeping the stories enjoyable yet topical without being too heavy handed?
J: It’s a delicate balance. I never want it to feel like "a very special" AMELIA RULES! story. I think the key is that the stories are from Amelia’s point of view – they can’t be preachy or heavy handed because we’re seeing them through the eyes of this kid and she’s trying to figure it all out too. So the crux of the story isn’t the grand lesson that she ‘should have learned’, it’s the emotional journey she’s been through and where she ends up.
S: What would you say are the main reasons why librarians should support AMELIA RULES!? What have you heard are the main reasons why kids enjoy reading this series?
J: Librarians have been so supportive of my book and comics in general, which has been really great. Librarians were really the first people outside the comics industry to recognize what a valuable medium comics are because they were watching kids read comics with great enthusiasm and often with more enthusiasm than reading prose books. I’m incredibly appreciative to librarians and what they’ve done for comics and graphic novels. Why should they support my book specifically? Because I try to bring literary quality to the comic. The Pennsylvania Library Association named it their One Book award winner this year – that’s quite an honor, and I’m hoping it exposes more people to my book who may not have tried it yet. Kids tell me that they like Amelia for different reasons – some like the humor, a lot of kids tell me they love the characters and can really relate to them, which is very gratifying.
S: Clearly comics for children are gaining popularity with everyone from parents to teachers and the kids themselves. Do you think that we’ll start to see more graphic novels being nominated and winning non-graphic novel awards? Will this give them more legitimacy?
J: I understand that awards are very important for the book industry but what’s most important to me is getting graphic novels into the hands of kids themselves so that they can develop an appreciation and love of the art form. Once kids have become fans of comics, the medium will be undeniable to the book industry and the awards will follow. When the first wave of graphic novels broke – Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns and Maus – they were not only critically acclaimed, but huge commercial successes. And it’s because of their commercial success that we’re still talking about them.
S: Tell us a bit about Kids Love Comics. Any updates?
J: We are actually talking with New York Comic-Con right now and working on doing some events for their Kids’ Day, which is Sunday Feb 8th. They are really excited about a new design for the Kids’ Day area and I believe it will be a fantastic event for families. Kids will be able to spend the whole day there and be very interactive with the programs and cartoonists. It should be a blast and we can’t wait! Aside from that, we actually have a couple announcements coming up, a new website design and lots of resources for parents, teachers, and librarians. I’ll keep you posted.
S: What are some of your favorite comics for kids you’ve read recently?
J: I really like what TOON Books is doing. My kids just love the books and ask my wife and me to read them over and over. They really have a handle on making books for very young readers. I also really like Amulet by Kazu Kibuishi. It has a great look to it and I’ve enjoyed it a lot.
S: Tell us what the future holds for Amelia. Any tidbits on future storylines? Any other projects besides Amelia you’ve been mulling about?
J: The next new AMELIA RULES! book will be The Tweenage Guide To Not Being Unpopular and it is SUPER awesome, if I may say so. Any other projects? You must be joking.
S: Thanks so much for your time Jimmy!
About Scott Robins
Scott Robins is a librarian at the Toronto Public Library and the co-author of A Parent's Guide to the Best Kids' Comics. He is the children's programming director for the annual Toronto Comic Arts Festival. He has also served on the graphic novel selection committee for the Canadian Children's Book Centre's Best Books for Kids and Teens and is a jury member of the Joe Shuster Awards in the "Comics for Kids" category.
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