By Michele Kirichanskaya
Today we’re pleased to invite Niki Smith to the WNDB blog to discuss her upcoming middle grade graphic novel The Golden Hour.
First of all, welcome to We Need Diverse Books! Could you tell us a little about yourself and your upcoming graphic novel, The Golden Hour?
Hi, I’m Niki Smith! I’m a graphic novel author and illustrator, and my newest book, The Golden Hour, is a contemporary middle grade story about coping with PTSD, anxiety, and the quiet joys of queer first love in rural Kansas. There’s also an adorable baby cow.
How did you find yourself becoming a writer and illustrator? What drew you to the medium of comics?
I always loved reading comics, particularly manga, and I found it endlessly fascinating to see the ways an artist could twist the format to tell a story. You could give a dozen artists the same base script to draw and end up with vastly different comics—the number of panels on a page, the shapes of those panels (if they even exist at all!), the way the lettering works alongside the imagery, the reveal that comes from turning a page…! There are so many inventive ways to tell stories through comics and I love discovering and trying out new techniques.
As an artist, were there any comics or artists that inspired or influenced you in terms of style or themes?
For The Golden Hour, two of my biggest influences were Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki’s This One Summer and Melanie Gillman’s As the Crow Flies. They’re quiet and heavy and queer and beautiful, with spreads of landscapes you feel you can get lost in. Those books could not take place in any other settings; the world the kids walk through is intrinsically connected to the story being told. I wanted to do the same thing, but with the Kansas fields I grew up surrounded by.
From the description of the book, it appears The Golden Hour will be discussing some pretty tough themes in regards to mental health and gun violence. Could you speak about why you wanted to explores these ideas in your work?
Anxiety is something I’ve always dealt with, and the world has only gotten harder. I grew up with tornado warnings, not active shooter drills. But that’s what school in the US is now. As a teen, I spent countless afternoons just hanging out in my school’s photography room, developing pictures and learning Photoshop. And that classroom had a loading dock door, always propped open to let in fresh air. Students who had graduated would regularly pop by to say hi and just hang out—the back door was always available and welcome. But the world has changed, and a lot of The Golden Hour was born from thinking about that looming, threatening open door.
I didn’t want to tell a story about violence, though. The Golden Hour is about what comes after: the lasting trauma, the panic attacks, the nightmares. But more than that, it’s about a trio of close friends building their own support structures and looking out for each other.
In The Golden Hour, the main character Manuel Soto is said to use photography as a way to ground himself in a world filled with anxiety. What do you think about using art as a way of processing trauma and coping mentally?
I think art therapy can do wonderful things. I’ve seen so many friends, both kids and adults, escape into their phone as a distraction when dealing with anxiety. The image of Manuel clinging to his phone came from that. Manuel struggles with derealization at the height of his panic attacks and when things are bad he uses his phone’s camera to find something to ground himself with: a friend’s bright red sneakers, a wind turbine in the distance, or a cute boy named Sebastian with a newborn calf. His pictures will never judge him or ask anything of him. As the book goes on, Manuel’s love of photography grows and he learns to share the work he makes with those closest to him.
Like your previous book, The Deep & Dark Blue, The Golden Hour also contains LGBTQ+ characters and themes. As a queer creator, what does queer representation in young adult and children’s literature mean to you?
It means so so much! I grew up finding practically no LGBTQ+ representation in the books I read. When I did find the rare queer characters, they were in novels far outside of my age range. I’m thrilled with how things have changed, especially over the last few years. There are so many new incredible middle grade and YA books with gay or bi or ace or trans characters, characters who get to live rich, complicated, messy lives. There is no one queer experience, and I hope the diversity of the voices getting to speak continues to expand.
Growing up were there are any narratives that sparked your love of storytelling or that you felt you could relate to?
I was an enormous sci fi/fantasy dork as a kid—my shelves were full of Tamora Pierce and Mercedes Lackey and every kind of dragon book I could find. My last book, The Deep & Dark Blue, was my queer love letter to the fantasy stories I devoured back then! If you also loved Mulan or Alanna but wanted to see a character who was actually trans having those adventures, that’s the book for you.
What advice would you have to give to aspiring writers/artists?
There is no right or wrong way to make comics. Draw what you love, write what you love, tell your stories! Share them online, trade zines at conventions, try something new every time. You’ll be amazed at how much you grow through play.
Are there any other projects you are currently working on and at liberty to talk about?
That’s the tricky thing about publishing—I’m collaborating on so many books I can’t talk about yet! I can say that I’m writing my first young adult graphic novel and I love it dearly… more will have to wait!
Finally, what are some diverse books you would recommend to the readers of WNDB?
For graphic novels, check out Snapdragon by Kat Leyh, The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen, and Stargazing by Jen Wang. And I listen to so many audio books while I draw– some of my recent favorites have been Before the Ever After by Jacqueline Woodson, King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender, and everything by Ashley Herring Blake!