A First Time for Everything: Dan Santat Discusses His Graphic Memoir, How Memories Change, and the Best Flavor of Fanta
Here are the facts of the matter as I am given to understand them:
- 1. I once was given the chance to do a magnificent picture book alongside Dan Santat called The Great Santa Stakeout and it was, to be perfectly honest, as good as anything I could have hoped for.
- 2. More recently I was also given the chance to interview Dan about his upcoming graphic novel A First Time for Everything. A book that, let us all be frank, has been advertised widely in every single PW newsletter/independent podcast/LJ and SLJ site/you name it.
Under normal circumstances, I am adverse to overly popular. Unless, of course, they are deserving of their praise.
A First Time for Everything is NOT Dan Santat’s first graphic novel. It is not even his second graphic novel. It is his third graphic novel and (quite frankly) the best of the best. Allow me to describe to you the way in which I read this book. I was asked to interview Dan on this very blog about this book but, in spite of my already existing love of his work, I was wary. The thing about Dan Santat is that he’s like all of us. Sometimes he’s able to craft gold out of the ether. Other times, maybe not. Was this book going to be an all around success? I couldn’t know until I read it. And when I did?
Sorry, but there isn’t a creator alive who knocks it out of the park 100% of the time (besides Frances Hardinge, of course) so I was thrilled. Dan’s latest title is a shockingly honest look at that strange moment in American history where pre-teens and teens straddled two sides of a changing era. For those of you, like myself, born on the tail end of Generation X and the beginning of the Millennial era, this book is an almost perfect document of one era shifting almost under the radar into another. Could another book other than a children’s book record this shift so faithfully? I think not.
Today, we talk to Dan about that shift and just in case you live in the Chicago-area, if this interview whets your whistle for more, I’ll be talking to the man live and in-person this coming February 26th at Anderson’s Bookshop, so be sure to see us then!
Betsy Bird: Dan! How great that I get to talk to you about A FIRST TIME FOR EVERYTHING. Now I suppose there’s always been a lightly autobiographical bent to some of the books you’ve done over the years, but this is the first outright this-is-my-life title you’ve ever attempted. Clearly you’ve sat on this story for a number of years. What in particular made you think to bring it to life now?
Dan Santat: Well, to tell you the truth, this wasn’t the original memoir I initially started with. About five years ago I started with a different memoir which required a lot of emotional heaving lifting that I wasn’t quite prepared to deal with at the time and I really struggled with the story for a few years. Then one day my oldest son, who was 13 at the time, asked me about the first time I fell in love. I was totally flatted that he would even bother to ask me that sort of question and I thought about it for a moment and realized it was this three week trip to Europe back in 1989 when I was also 13. My son was blown away by all the adventures I had at his same age in comparison to what kids do now. When I told my editor about this conversation over the phone she stopped me and said, “Wait. Why have you never told me this story before?! This is your next book! Write this and it will teach you how to write a memoir.” The majority of the time I worked on this book was during the global pandemic and now that I reflect on those years, I think this book is coming out at the perfect time. The last three years left us with a world that felt like a very scary place, the media reminded us every day that our country was divided politically and racism is still alive and kicking. Almost everyone on this entire planet just experienced a global shock of PTSD and is perhaps thinking the world is completely unloving and terrifying whereas the essence of this story is about seeing how kind and beautiful the world can really be if you go out and see it with your own eyes and interact with it despite the intimidating scale of it all. I hope it helps readers see that they can fit somewhere into the world because it is so vast and diverse even though they may somehow feel left out and out of place in their own situation.
BB: I was just going to glance through it but this is freakishly impossible to put down once you’ve started. I binged it without cease. Also, I found that I believed absolutely everything that happened inside. Even the punks on bikes. Still, picking and choosing what to include must have been interesting. Were there any stories you thought about including and just didn’t for one reason or another?
DS: Allow me to preface this answer by telling you that everything in this story actually happened to me in real life but just not exactly in the way it plays out in the book. For example, I actually was not alone when being chased by the punk rockers. I was with Darryl who had instigated the whole ordeal by flipping them the bird for no apparent reason other than to upset four scary looking adult men. There were some stories that I wished I could have included but they really couldn’t find their place in the overall story arc and just sat around my outline as loose threads. One was a story that took place in Vienna where we were just dancing and singing in the street outside of our hotel and out of nowhere a city metro train whizzed by and almost crushed one of the kids. There was another story where we took a day trip to Dachau (a Jewish concentration camp) that I left out because the story would have just taken a very somber turn and detract from the point of the whole book. There were some stories which had to be cut from the book simply because there just weren’t enough pages. I actually had to cut 150 pages from my third draft when the whole book was just a little under 500 pages. The Wimbledon trip was actually much longer. In the beginning we had actually missed the train stop and ended up in a train yard surrounded by dozens of empty trains. We panicked for about an hour because there was no one around to help us and we had no idea how to get back to town until one of the trains started moving again and we hopped on. In another scene of the book I briefly mention a ride in the Prater Amusement Park called the Tagada. In reality we all rode on it and I ended up with a few cuts and bruises. We actually witnessed someone getting escorted off the ride due receiving a broken arm and later discovered the ride was so dangerous that it’s actually banned in three countries.
I think the one story that that I was really sad that got cut was an evening in Vienna where Amy was sitting in her hotel window sill crying about the trip coming to an end and I was standing outside next to her and comforting her for about an hour. My editor, Connie Hsu, felt the scene was too slow. In retrospect I totally agree but it really added a depth to the characters. I realize now that it also shifted the story from less about me coming out of my shell and turned it more into a love story, which kind of missed the mark.
Lastly, at one point I had considered a different ending for the book. When I returned home I had a jar of about $80 in quarters and for the rest of that Summer I rode my bike down to a phone booth next to Rolling Pin Donuts and I would feed the phone dozens of quarters to talk to Amy for an hour once a week and the story had ended with me making my first phone call to her but the ending really was perfect with the first letter.
BB: I’m just sitting here thinking about how this perfectly illustrated the difference between how endings feel in life versus in literature. Naturally this makes me wonder, since you’ve so many of your classmates in the book, did you get feedback from any of them while you were writing it? If so, did any of their memories jar with your own?
DS: When this project first started I gathered everyone together in a Facebook Chat group and we would discuss memories from the trip. What was interesting was how much everyone had forgotten. There were lots of blurry fragments of stories but once another person would add another detail then everything all slowly came together. Photos were tremendous jolts for our memories. One day, while I was in the early stages of working on the manuscript, my friend (Joy) texted me a photo of a drawing of a dragon that I drew for her in 8th grade for her father’s birthday with a note telling me that her father still had it hanging on his wall. I thought about it for a moment and realized that it was the first time I had ever sold my art to anyone and decided that it had to be in the story in some way to help establish a deeper history between the two characters so I decided to incorporate flashbacks into the story to strengthen the relationships between myself all the characters from my hometown. I was actually quite surprised to discover that incorporating old memories was pretty effortless on my part because we had all known each other for so many years and there were lots of stories to choose from. The scene where Shelley had her period and I lent her my sweater was something neither of us had recalled. It was actually my mother who remembered every detail of that moment commenting on how odd it was that she was wearing my sweater at the time. The time Amber said I was ugly in front of all the kids was a particularly scarring moment for me and I remember writing a blog post about it years ago. Weeks after uploading the post, the real Amber sent me an angry email denying that it ever happened and demanded that I take the post down. As you can probably guess, her real name isn’t Amber. Perhaps the best primary sources of material that I had at my disposal came from this girl, Amy, who was my first kiss. She had actually kept her journal from the trip and graciously transcribed all the details to me by email. It contained names of hotels, places we ate, and even what the weather was like each day. I owe her big for that one. Maybe I should write a book about her? HA!
BB: *eyes her own journals from overseas trips nervously* Change of pace! Dan, you’re of my generation. I recently heard someone describe us as the kids that experienced that last gasp of parental disconnect before the helicopter parenting took hold. This book occupies this marvelous liminal space that existed in the 80s and 90s where kids were given just loads of freedom in ways that they certainly aren’t today. I’m fascinated with books that highlight this period. We see it in Jackie Woodson’s THE WORLD BELONGED TO US where kids roamed American streets, and now you’re on the other side of the spectrum with older young people traipsing about the streets of Europe. To your mind, are kids going to identify with this or see it as some kind of strange fantasy of freedom?
DS: It’s funny you say that because I had initially had those same concerns, but as I started writing about my own awkward experiences and talked to my kids about their time in middle school, I realized that the awkwardness of growing up is the main focal point of this story and is a cycle that repeats over and over throughout every generation. Who hasn’t gotten tongue tied trying to talk to someone they had a crush on? Who hasn’t tried to hide from embarrassment after an awkward situation? The world of kids mostly revolves around their friends, parents, and school for the first 18 years of their lives and I feel like the only things that really change are the clothes we wore and the music we listen to but the struggles of growing up remain the same. The heart of this story is all about liking yourself and feeling comfortable in your own skin and that is a struggle that we all go through in life in any generation. The idea of letting 13 year old kids loose into foreign countries sounds completely asinine by today’s standards but I think it’s important to also remind ourselves that for the most part we ended up perfectly fine and we were capable of handling ourselves! I discussed this with the friends who went on this trip and I think most of us agreed that we probably wouldn’t let our kids go hog wild like we did. I think I was the only exception in the group. I don’t think kids are going to be disconnected by the freedom we were allowed to have back in the day because the book isn’t written with that as a primary focus. Later on in the story I think you forget that the kids are even roaming around a foreign country on their own. It plays out more like kids running around in a mall on the weekend knowing they have to meet up with their parents at a certain time.
BB: Aw. I love that. But, at the same time, I can already hear the distant wails of catalogers everywhere as they try to determine where exactly in the library to place this book. The children’s section or the teen? Or both? But to me it brilliantly straddles all of that. It’s that period where you’re between the two age groups. So how do you see the intended audience?
DS: I think this story is for all ages. A younger person in grade school will read this book and understand that different kids mature at different times and it’s perfectly normal to sometimes feel overwhelmed and nervous to those dramatic changes. A current middle school student will realize that adolescence can be tough, especially during that period in life, and they won’t feel alone in their insecurities and can take solace in the fact that life does eventually get better and you only have to be a kid once. An older kid in high school who is thinking of life after high school can get a better understanding of who they are as people by going out into the world and trying new things which may, in fact, give them a greater insight as to what they may want to pursue in life. Even adults can read this book and reflect back in their earlier days and remind themselves what they were truly like when they were their kids’ age and perhaps be more empathetic towards their struggles during that tough stage of development in life.
BB: That’s beautiful, Dan. So all that remains for me to ask, then, is this final question: Best flavor of Fanta?
DS: Orange. You never forget your firsts.
I envy those of you who haven’t read this book yet. But don’t worry. A First Time for Everything is on bookstore and library shelves everywhere February 28th.
Thank you so much, Dan, for answering my questions with such insight and honesty. Thank you too to Morgan Rath and the folks at Macmillan Children’s Books for setting up this interview in the first place. It probably won’t be the first one you see with Dan about this book and it won’t be the last, but dang. The man knows how to sell this specific moment from our past, doesn’t he?
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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