Aliza Layne Wants Graphic Novels in the Literary Canon

Beetle and the Hollowbones author Aliza Layne fills SLJ in on the challenges of creating a character who doesn’t talk, how she balanced sweet and spooky elements, and her hopes for the graphic novel medium.

With Beetle and the Hollowbones (S. & S./Atheneum; Gr 4-8), Aliza Layne plunges readers into a sumptuous, jewel-toned world of magic. Beetle, a 12-year-old green-skinned goblin girl, struggles both with magic lessons and with friendship woes—her best friend Blob Ghost, a floating red orb who can’t speak, inhabits the local mall, which is slated to be torn down. Meanwhile, her pal Kat, a skeletal catlike girl who moved away, returns, and tension is introduced into their relationship as both grapple with romantic feelings for each other—and deal with Kat’s nefarious aunt. Layne filled SLJ in on the challenges of creating a character who doesn’t talk, how she balanced sweet and spooky elements, and her hopes for the graphic novel medium.

Do you start with characters or with settings?
I write character-first. When I first came up with Beetle and Blob Ghost, they were such strong characters that I wrote everything else around the two of them. They were originally the main characters of a minicomic I wrote in 2014, which you can still find on my website. The world evolved around those two and I just did whatever felt right at the time. It’s not a very serious setting, so I get to play around quite a lot!

Is it challenging depicting Blob Ghost, who doesn't talk?
Yes, purposefully! I like to try and push the medium I’m working in until I’m doing something only that medium can do. So a speech bubble is the only representational form BG could use to communicate visually in this exact way. I also thought it would be cool to have the pictures BG summons behave like an idealized magical version of an AAC communication board.

Which character is your favorite? Is there a character you identify with most?
That’s hard to answer. All fiction is about communicating the lens of your experience to another person, right? Well, if it is, then all the characters are part of that identity lens. Even if we’re writing about other people, we’re talking about the way we see them when we write. Determining a favorite is hard, too… let’s say Beetle, if only because she’s who my hand naturally draws when I don’t know what to draw in the moment.

Your book is so inclusive when it comes to queer identity (the budding romance between Beetle and Kat; Blob Ghost using they/them pronouns). Was that intentional?
I just want to reflect real life the way I see and experience it, even when I’m writing a goblin book!

Can you describe your medium and technique?
I make comics on the computer using a big tablet monitor so I can draw and paint directly on the screen. I write an outline, write a script, draw small versions of every page of the book, draw them again but bigger (and messy), then ink over those drawings. I add speech bubbles and drawn sound effects. Then one of my flat colorists, Kristen Acampora and Natalie Riess, or I would do the flat colors, which block out local areas of color to make the painting easier. There a lot of books where this is the final step! For this book I went on to paint each page; this was digital, too. Beetle is painted kind of like an oil or acrylic painting.

How do you manage to walk the line between cute and creepy so well?
That’s another place where I wanted to set myself a personal goal, it’s a little difficult to make a skeleton the “beautiful girl” character, so that’s what I wanted to do the most. Sometimes you meet a girl who is so beautiful that you get kind of afraid of her, right? I also wanted her to look cool and mysterious. So it’s all a part of character design!

I noticed references to “Sailor Moon” and other manga. Can you discuss your influences?
This isn’t the first time I’ve gotten a question like this, and I find it interesting! I specifically didn’t include outright pop culture references anywhere in Beetle, because I find they take me out of the story sometimes as a reader, but I did want to reflect the media reality of a modern kid, and that includes cross-cultural media! So this is a world where anime and manga exist, where yōkai exist, because it’s a world where Western media and creatures exist and that’s what felt natural to me.

“Sailor Moon” is absolutely an influence! I love how it can be both silly and heartfelt, genuinely frightening and genuinely romantic. I love the breadth of girl experiences it touches on. I think it’s a work of genius! I keep up with a lot of manga and love reading yuri manga, a trait I share with Beetle.

What were the books you loved as a child? What was missing? Were there stories you wish you had seen growing up?
As a kid I read books for kids and books for adults as soon as I was old enough to get what I was looking at. I loved A Series of Unfortunate Events and Jeff Smith’s “Bone.” I think I started reading Discworld when I was around 13, Robin McKinley’s books, Coraline, the “Abarat” series. I think the first book with a gay main character I ever read was Tanya Huff’s Smoke and Mirrors, which was for adults. I wish I’d had fantasy books from more authors who weren’t white when I was a kid. I think I missed out on a bunch of interesting stuff because I was reading what I could get my hands on. Most books by minorities I was exposed to were contemporary coming-of-age, which I’ve never been super into.

If I’d had Gideon the Ninth at age 13 I think I would have read it 20 times. Ditto with Emily Carroll’s books. I loved horror. Most of the books I’d have liked to read as a kid are being made by my friends and peers right now!

With a graphic novel winning the Newbery, the medium has made huge strides. But there are still detractors. What would you say to parents or educators who don't view graphic novels as "real" literature?
I’m glad to see that there’s a cultural shift towards comics as literature! I think public consciousness follows academia’s lead on this, generally. There just hasn’t been a lot of time and attention devoted to comics as a medium the way we see with the literary and film canon; I don’t think I ever studied a comic in a literary way until I took the one optional elective they offered about comics at my college. But comics as a medium has its own language and uniqueness of form; as we culturally shift towards valuing comics as art and people who don’t make comics begin to study them, we’re going to see people who take their view of what real art is from academia begin to follow along naturally. This is an opportunity to establish a new literary canon.

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Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar ( is Reference and Professional Reading Editor for Library Journal and School Library Journal and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

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