We sat down with author, Brenna Thummler, to learn about her creative process and inspiration behind her touching novel, Sheets.
What led you to write such an emotionally-real story for a middle grade audience? How did you go about making it accessible to young readers? What were the challenges?
As adults, we can sometimes forget that kids, too, experience pain, loss and isolation. I feel I have a responsibility as an author to make sure that difficult topics are discussed—to not shy away from the issues. Kids are incredibly smart! They can pick up on subtleties and empathize with emotional story lines. I drew from my own encounters with pain and loneliness to create a protagonist with intense struggles who could still be relatable. I think the added whimsy makes the story more accessible: the ghosts, puns and Halloween elements, and a wacky villain who brings a bit of absurdity, a choice that stemmed from those problems that seem nonsensical and inexplainable and can make us even more frustrated. The challenge, of course, was deciding how heavy was too heavy. But I don’t think this is supposed to be an easy read. It’s supposed to challenge readers, make them embrace the tough emotions and realize it’s okay to feel them. It was also difficult to merge Marjorie’s human existence with the Land of Ghosts; I needed to find that balance of reality and fantasy.
Tell us a little about your process. Where did the story come from? How did you approach it as an artist?
The story of Sheets, which began as a class assignment in college, grew from the difficulties I had during those years. I was lonely and struggling mentally and often confused about my emotions. I was fortunate, though, for I had my stories and illustrations to help process the pain and express myself. While I sometimes felt like a ghost, my work kept me grounded in reality and made me feel visible. I see so much of myself in Marjorie, and though we did not face the same type of loss, I feel deeply connected to her story. As an artist, I focused on the characters as I tend to do, using expressions and subtle gestures to capture the human experience. I wanted to bring attention to what was going on inside the characters, more so than in the world around them. In addition, I used nearby towns, the names of friends and teachers, and childhood memories to create many of the scenes and visuals. The story becomes more intimate in this way: it has even more meaning to those I’m close to, and to me personally.
This is your first original graphic novel, but you did a beautiful adaptation of Anne of Green Gables last year. What was it like working on a piece that was all you? How did it differ from collaborating on an adaptation?
I loved illustrating Anne of Green Gables, recreating one of my favorite childhood stories with my own voice and vision. I loved working with Mariah, as it was a rare chance to collaborate closely with another creator. But creating an original graphic novel is such a powerful, personal experience. Every decision and mark and word comes from you, which is a lot of pressure. It is demanding and overwhelming and downright terrifying at times, but the determination to push past these challenges proves how dearly I love it. I’m a terrible decision-maker, and creating a graphic novel is one massive decision after another. I stressed over many of them, and there is still so much I would change, but I’ve begun to treat my books as learning opportunities. I’ve come to understand that just as characters grow, so do I. Having a world entirely my own, with characters I’ve developed and help to reach their goals: it’s difficult to explain just how meaningful it is. Of the billions of people in the world, I will always be the one with the deepest roots in this story, and it’s an unparalleled feeling.
The color palette really sets the mood and lends a lot to the reader’s experience. How did you land on those tones?
Pinks, purples and blues—this felt like the palette of a laundromat, soft and retro, and a sort of new take on the 90s (when the story takes place). The pastels certainly mirror the mood, as they are mellow, dreamy, and fragile. Plus, I hadn’t used much purple in my past illustration work, and I wanted to change this, as it finally felt like the appropriate time to do so. It’s a nice bridge between the sweet pinks and sad blues.
We get the sense Marjorie feels a bit like a ghost. What would you say to a reader who’s feeling invisible or lonely?
It’s normal to feel this way. In fact, I’m sure everyone does at some point. You are not alone, no matter what your age or gender or culture or background. One of the most important parts of Sheets is that despite all the adversity Marjorie must endure, she doesn’t give up. She perseveres until she can’t, and then she gets help. So I would encourage anyone who’s feeling invisible or lonely to not be afraid to discuss these emotions, and to find someone you can trust to open up to, whether it’s a family member, teacher, friend, or school counselor. To have sad feelings is never a sign of weakness—it’s just a temporary obstacle that you must learn how to overcome. And by being open and honest about these feelings, you will show great strength.
You tackle some heavy stuff—mortality, loneliness, the loss of a parent, massive responsibility falling on the shoulders of a young person—but you still manage to inject lightheartedness and hope. How did you strike that balance? Was it difficult?
The balance was certainly difficult. I didn’t want to hide from the issues, but I also didn’t want to completely break readers’ hearts on every single page. So again, I turned to my own experiences—some of the things I love: ghost stories and autumn and music and shampoo. My hope was that the fantasy elements would help readers to distance themselves a bit from the story’s melancholia. Plus, Marjorie and Wendell are lovable, determined characters who in the end, do find each other and overcome their struggles. I think the fact that a happy ending can come from such darkness says a lot more than a happy ending that comes from an equally happy story.
Marjorie deals with some tricky family dynamics. Tell us a little about that, and the role she assumes in their home. How does that play into her character development?
While Marjorie doesn’t have anyone looking out for her, she has to look out for everyone else. Because of this, she’s had to grow up very fast. Her character is in a constant state of contradiction, as her loneliness and pain battles her strength and determination. Throughout most of the story, she continues to fight against all the odds, until she does fail, somewhat, by giving into Mr. Saubertuck. There’s also a moment when she turns on Wendell, belittling him in the same way everyone has belittled her. Her character is obviously not perfect, nor should any thirteen-year-old be expected to be perfect, or expected to prevail over a crazy middle-aged man. I think the balance of strength and weakness is important for her character development, for that balance is present in every human being, and does not make her a bad person. It’s okay to have strengths and weaknesses, as long as your intentions are in the right place.
What/who are some of your influences as an artist?
Jillian Tamaki is one of my biggest influences, especially as This One Summer was a major factor in my decision to work in graphic novels. Other creative role models are Vera Brosgol, Raina Telgemeier, Daniel Handler, and Jodi Picoult, just to name a few. But I have many other influences as an artist: my own life experiences, friends, human problems and social issues, Halloween, nature, and breakfast food.
Do you believe in ghosts?
Oh yes, absolutely. I believe I have seen ghosts. And everyone should remember that even if you haven’t seen something, it doesn’t mean it’s not there.
What’s on your nightstand right now?
An advance reader copy of Almost Invisible by Maureen Garvie that I’ve almost finished, along with The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui, and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, which are next in my queue!