Interviews

Interview with author/illustrator Terri Libenson of ALWAYS ANTHONY

Terri Libenson’s new graphic novel, ALWAYS ANTHONY (Balzer + Bray, 2024) follows the alternating points of view between Anthony and Leah, two middle schoolers who don’t seem to have much in common until Leah begins to tutor Anthony, and they both witness a bullying incident. Throughout the novel, the 8th in the Emmie & Friends series, the friendship between the two characters grows. ALWAYS ANTHONY is a delightful story filled with heartfelt interactions and humor that readers will love. I had the opportunity to interview Terri for my 2020 nonfiction book DIJ – DO IT JEWISH: USE YOUR JEWISH CREATIVITY, and I am thrilled to chat with her about the newest installment in her graphic novel series. Welcome, Terri!

Your newest book, ALWAYS ANTHONY tackles some serious issues, like bullying. But the heart of the story is the healing power of friendship. How do you balance these important topics with humor?

Humor is a device I’m comfortable with and one of my favorite ways to express myself. I grew up reading comics, and that instilled a love of fun stories mixed with images. I’ve also had a lot of practice balancing heartful topics with humor from years of writing comics, and it’s a challenge I enjoy. I like to say that it’s reassuring for readers: heavy content can really weigh you down, but humor tempers it and reminds you that there is a balance in life.

Terri Libenson

Leah is an unexpected new friend to Anthony. When Leah shares about her Shabbat practice, Anthony is supportive and kind. Can you tell me a bit about what inspired Leah’s character and her Shabbat observance? 

Sure! I love sneaking in Jewishness whenever I can. Ultimately, this is a large group of diverse characters, and Leah is just one of them. Although ALWAYS ANTHONY doesn’t revolve around Leah’s Jewish heritage like BECOMING BRIANNA does (my fourth book that’s focused on a bat mitzvah), I like to let her background shine at times. I love writing for Jewish characters because, of course, it’s something I know well and can write confidently about since it echoes my own upbringing (although we didn’t observe Shabbat) – as opposed to other protagonists’ backgrounds (for example, Sarah, who is Mexican-American) where I tend to do more research.

Leah’s Jewish heritage also intentionally sets her apart from Anthony; I wanted these two characters to be as seemingly different from each other as possible. That allows them to learn from each other and actually discover they have more in common than they think. Leah speaks lovingly about her religion and traditions, which involve observing Shabbat, while Anthony reciprocates by talking about his own family background.

ALWAY ANTHONY is part of the EMMIE AND FRIENDS series. Did you have a big picture of all the different characters when you started the series, or have your characters and subsequent books grown organically?

Definitely the latter. I never even allowed myself to dream that this would become a series. I was just hoping INVISIBLE EMMIE and POSITIVELY IZZY (I had a two-book deal) would sell well enough. Amazingly, they did so well that by the time I wrote the third book, we were able to brand it as a series, and it kept growing from there.

When I wrote INVISIBLE EMMIE, I assumed the second book would also star Emmie. But when it came time to write that one, I realized her story was “done” (for the time being) and I really wanted to showcase someone new. Emmie’s best friend, Brianna, was perfect since she was already a well-developed character, so she became the next protagonist along with a brand new character named Izzy. Turned out I loved switching up and creating new characters, so I kept going. Now I have such great group of diverse protagonists and a wonderful fanbase; kids always write to me with suggestions for main characters, and I take those requests to heart.

As an author/illustrator, what comes first for you – the art or the story? 

The story. The books are hybrids: part illustrated novel and part graphic novel. For the illustrated novel chapters, I type out the story and include ideas for images along the way. For the graphic novel chapters, I type it as a script and also add some art direction. I never do the art at first because the manuscript usually undergoes edits, so the illustrations would have to change or be scrapped along with it. So, once the story is written and approved, I’ll go in and add all the art afterwards. Makes the process as seamless as possible (trust me, I learned the hard way).

All of your characters feel so authentic. How are you able to keep your finger on the pulse of today’s middle school kids? 

Ha, honestly, I don’t know. I think part of it is that, inwardly, I often still feel stuck at twelve. Although I don’t remember the day to day stuff I did at that age, I do remember a lot of the feelings I had; they stayed with me. I also partially relived that era through my own daughters’ ups and downs. Additionally, I think some things are just as universal today as they were when I was growing up, like that feeling of wanting to fit in while trying to stand out. That will always be part of adolescence.

What do you hope your readers take away from Anthony and Leah?

I hope, as with most of my books, they realize that people are more than what they seem and not to make instant judgements. I also hope this story helps teach them about sticking up for others. And, most importantly, I hope it makes them laugh.

Thank you, Terri!

Terri Libenson is the bestselling author of Invisible Emmie, Positively Izzy, Just Jaime and Becoming Brianna. She is also the Reuben Award–winning cartoonist of the internationally syndicated comic strip The Pajama Diaries and was a longtime writer of humorous cards for American Greetings. Terri lives with her husband and two daughters in Cleveland, Ohio. You can find her online at www.terrilibenson.com.

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