By Sara Conway
Today we’re pleased to welcome Marjorie Liu to the WNDB blog to discuss middle grade graphic novel Wingbearer, illustrated by Teny Issakhanian and out since March 1, 2022!
Zuli is extraordinary—she just doesn’t realize it yet. Raised by mystical bird spirits in the branches of the Great Tree, she’s never ventured beyond this safe haven. She’s never had to. Until now.
When a sinister force threatens the life-giving magic of the tree, Zuli, along with her guardian owl, Frowly, must get to the root of it. So begins an adventure bigger than anything Zuli could’ve ever imagined—one that will bring her, along with some newfound friends, face-to-face with an ancient dragon, the so-called Witch-Queen, and most surprisingly of all: her true identity.
This captivating middle grade graphic novel, the first of a series, is perfect for fans of the Amulet books and the Wings of Fire series.
Hi Marjorie! Thank you for speaking with We Need Diverse Books today! Can you introduce yourself and your new graphic novel Wingbearer to WNDB readers?
Hello, everyone! And thank you, Sara, for having me! I’ve been writing novels and comics for almost twenty years—when I first started out I was one of a handful of Asian American writers in romance and urban fantasy, and one of the few women of color in mainstream US comics, and at Marvel. Fortunately for all of us, the landscape of publishing has grown more diverse since then.
Wingbearer is my first graphic novel for younger readers; it is a fantasy adventure about a girl named Zuli who has grown up literally in between worlds; she was raised in a limbo-like place, an otherworldly tree where bird spirits go before they’re reborn. But when those spirits suddenly stop appearing, and the tree’s guardians begin to fear the worst, Zuli crosses into the “real world” to discover what’s happening to all the birds, and hopefully learn more about her mysterious past.
You mention in your author letter that a photograph of your cousin posing in the woods sparked the idea that would become Wingbearer. As you said, “What if a little girl had to go on a quest to save the souls of birds?” What was the process of developing Wingbearer from this initial question to its published form?
It took well over ten years for me to develop this book, in fits and starts, and each time I thought I had the story, I’d quickly realize that I didn’t. The worst thing you can do is to force yourself to tell a story you’re not ready to tell—that you’re not grown up enough to tell—and that’s what I tried to do with Wingbearer, over and over again. I knew the idea was strong, but there was nothing nutritious about what I was writing—it was all surface, nothing resonated with me. And then in early 2019, I finally unraveled what I’d always known but never articulated out loud to myself: that Wingbearer is a love letter to my family. A love letter to all the qualities I love most about my family: their ethics of compassion, curiosity, pluck, resilience, faith, joy. This is the inheritance my family gave me and my cousins, and what I’ve been trying to pass on to my own goddaughters. Once I gave voice to that, Zuli came alive, and so did her world and the characters in that world.
This is definitely not your first time writing comics, as you have written for Marvel and you wrote the Monstress series. What were some similarities and differences you noticed while writing Wingbearer in comparison to your other graphic novels?
Zuli is a character who is ferociously loving and tenaciously brave. She also doesn’t suffer from self-consciousness. She may not know where she came from, but she knows who she is—and that’s very unlike most of the conflicted characters I’ve written before, who are profoundly lost, prideful, and angry. What’s interesting, though, is that Monstress requires that I dig very deep into myself, and Wingbearer and its sequel have demanded the same—but also: I’ve found myself becoming deeply, profoundly emotional while writing Zuli, and that’s never happened before. I think it’s because she’s so earnest, and to reach into those depths of earnestness, and her radical compassion, I’ve had to dwell in some very vulnerable spaces. I had to get young again—young and very old—and Wingbearer, for me as the writer, is maybe my most emotional book, so far.
Graphic novels are a rising form of telling stories, particularly for young readers. Why do you think Wingbearer is best told as a graphic novel? How does the dominant visual aspect also tie into your mission of writing fantasy stories with people of color at the forefront?
Because we’re able to see ourselves. The written word is not a barrier by any means, but a picture really does paint a thousand words, and to just glance upon a book cover where you can see people like yourself and like your family members, and open up a book where you see your families staring up at you from every page—having adventures, living inside of a magical world—is powerfully life-affirming. I didn’t have that, many of us didn’t have that, but my god-children and other young family members are fortunate enough to be growing up in a time where they do have these stories, with more being written every year. Their imaginary selves are being embraced across many genres and mediums.
As for Wingbearer, one of the best things about being both a novelist and a comic book writer is that moment when you balance a story in your head, trying to decide which medium will be the best home. Wingbearer’s world of magic, flight, and rebirth could have been brought to life with prose, but Zuli demanded as much to be seen as to be heard, and so I had to be true to the truth of the character.
Also: I love working with artists. The collaborative process is so inspiring. Teny Issakhanian brought Zuli, Orien, and Frowly to life with such passion and energy—her character design is genius, her lines are so graceful and kinetic, and there’s a cinematographic quality to her panels that I’m in love with.
On the topic of Wingbearer’s art, Teny does an incredible job of bringing Zuli’s story to life! Do you have a favorite page or panel from Wingbearer?
Working with Teny has been a dream come true. What a phenomenal storyteller. She brought so much creativity and design love to the characters and the world—which makes it hard for me to choose just one page! But here’s two of my favorites (for now, it changes in a heartbeat): literally the first page, where we see Zuli as a sleeping infant, and then much later in the book on Page 113, when Zuli is traveling with her new friends and her arms are outstretched with joy as birds land on her. There’s so much happening on that page, from her own delight, to Orien praying to the Stone Goddess, to Frowly’s grumpiness.
Zuli is the only human living in the Great Tree, and she is naturally curious about where she came from. What was your process to develop Zuli into the character that she is in Wingbearer? Was she the first voice in that story that came to you?
She was absolutely the first voice that came to me. I wrote the first three pages of the book around ten years ago—they sprang from me with a great deal of life—but after that, it took me a long time to find her voice again, for all the reasons I’ve mentioned. But the core of Zuli always had at her heart my relationship with my cousin, all the qualities of courage and resilience and pluck we had together as family and girls.
And beyond that were the central questions of Zuli’s life: where is she from, and why was she left in such an extraordinary place? For what purpose? Clearly, the guardians of the tree know more than they let on, but why keep secrets from her?
Something readers notice early on is that Zuli is very honest about her fear. Why was it important to you to make sure Zuli is upfront about this?
I’m so glad readers noticed that! I think one of the hardest things in the world, whether you’re young or old, is to be in sympathy with what makes you feel vulnerable. I myself still struggle with being honest about my fears. It’s so scary to say “I’m afraid,” isn’t it? As if fear is a monster that will eat you up if you name it. It’s so much easier to just ignore fear, to ignore vulnerabilities, to pretend they don’t exist and say, “Oh, nothing bothers me, I’m fearless, I’m brave, I’m a badass.” And while that can sometimes be a useful pep-talk, it doesn’t touch what rests beneath the bravado. Bravado is a mask.
But Zuli doesn’t wear masks; I doubt she even knows that masks exist. She possesses the full innocence of the young untrammeled self. She just is—and as a consequence of that “is-ness”, she isn’t spending a lot of energy beating up on herself or worrying what other people think about her. She’s at that age where she’s not yet ashamed of being afraid. And what I love about Zuli being upfront about this is that to name something—to say that she’s afraid—is the way she creates the space to be comforted. You can’t be given a hug if you pretend you don’t need one. You can’t face your fears without first saying, “I’m afraid.” You can’t grieve without first saying, “I’m sad, I’m hurt.” But we’re so often taught not to do that.
Readers also catch on quickly that while many beings in this world have wings, the freedom afforded to each varies, which is seen clearly through the goblin Orien. Was he always a part of Wingbearer? What do you hope readers get from his character?
Orien was not always a part of Wingbearer, at least not as he is now. I wanted Zuli to find a friend in this world, but Orien’s character was a mystery to me for most of the ten years that I wrestled with the book. It wasn’t until Zuli’s character came into focus that he did, as well—and then, at that point, he and Zuli both became very “loud” inside my head.
Orien is someone who hasn’t had it easy—in fact, he’s been wounded by life. Many of us are, to one degree or another. Orien is cynical, practical, streetwise, and he doesn’t trust easily. But he’s also managed to protect the part of himself that is still open and good, and that’s the part that falls into friendship with Zuli, a friendship that allows him to start healing, growing, and seeing that life isn’t just about survival. He’s also a good foil for Zuli, because she’s very idealistic, and has never had to compromise on those ideals—whereas Orien has had to compromise a little too much on everything. In other words, they’re complete opposites, but they intersect in two areas: loyalty and compassion.
I believe that our friends don’t have to be just like us—we don’t need to have the same values, the same backgrounds. But if there’s sympathy and compassion for one another, then powerful friendships can be born, and a lot of learning and growth can happen. That’s part of what I hope readers take from Orien and Zuli’s friendship. Also, I felt that it was important to have a character who could bear witness to the inequalities of the world that Zuli has found herself in, something she has no concept of, or is prepared for.
One quote that stood out to me was Frowly’s (Zuli’s owl companion) line, “I didn’t know that worlds could die, too.” Why was it important to you to discuss imperialism, inequality, power, and the rise and fall of places and people in this book for a young audience?
Because children are really smart, and these are ideas and themes that touch the lives of children, in different ways, in different places, across race, class, and culture. On an intuitive level, kids understand inequality, they understand power. Let’s be honest, schools and families are complex ecologies of power, where children have to constantly navigate and survive and learn from adults who are likely to be imperfect people (even if their intentions are good and loving). And on top of that, if you’re an immigrant or the child of an immigrant, you understand what it means to leave one world for another, even if you don’t yet have the words to describe it. A cross-world fantasy novel like Wingbearer is, I hope, a bit of escapism that helps to model these complicated ideas in a fun and safe way.
What do you hope readers, especially young readers, discover through Wingbearer?
A place to practice their sense of wonder, to practice their imaginations. And maybe reflect on the ideas that being brave doesn’t mean being fearless; and that curiosity and compassion are a superpower. And, it’s okay to be wrong about the things you think are true—the world won’t end.
What are some books (graphic novels or otherwise) you would recommend to WNDB readers?
Anything by Gene Luen Yang or Jillian Tamaki, and I love Jen Wang’s The Prince and the Dressmaker, John Lewis’s March, Robin Ha’s Almost American Girl, and George Takei’s They Called Us Enemy. The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton is a favorite of mine, I read Octavia Butler’s Dawn every year, and Tae Keller’s When You Trap a Tiger is a lovely novel.
Marjorie Liu is the New York Times bestselling author of Monstress, illustrated by Sana Takeda. She also writes for Marvel Comics, including Black Widow, X-23, and Astonishing X-Men. Marjorie teaches comic book writing at M.I.T., and divides her time between Boston, Massachusetts, and Tokyo, Japan. Visit her online at www.marjoriemliu.com.
Sara Conway is a New York-based writer of many things, including books, art, and music. She is currently a library page at her local library, where she discovers even more books to add to her ever-growing TBR pile. Sara also runs Lyrical Reads, a book blog dedicated to uplifting diverse voices, with a soft spot for Asian and Asian American stories. She can be found writing reviews for her book blog, taking photos for her bookstagram, or (re)tweeting about all the books on her Twitter.