Interview: Stephanie Rodriguez Talks Bronx, 00s Nostalgia, and More in Doodles from the Boogie Down
When I first moved to New York City I didn’t know the first thing about “boroughs”. Were they like neighborhoods? I’d heard of Staten Island and Queens but I didn’t really understand what the difference was between them. Really, it wasn’t until I started working for New York Public Library that I realized how vital each borough is to the heart and soul of the city. I also learned that while most of the press goes to Brooklyn and Manhattan, it’s the Bronx that commands your respect. For one thing, it’s huge. For another, it covers an enormous strata of socio-economic neighborhoods. Yet how often did it appear in books? Hardly ever.
Now things are starting to change. It probably doesn’t hurt that a Newbery Medal went to a graphic novel set entirely in the Bronx (New Kid, anyone?). That gave me hope, and that hope has been further buoyed by the appearance of a new comic book memoir that was just released last week, Doodles from the Boogie Down by Stephanie Rodriguez.
Here’s how the publisher would like to describe it:
“A young Dominican girl navigates middle school, her strict mother, shifting friendships, and her dream of being an artist in this debut coming-of-age graphic novel inspired by the author’s tween years.
Eighth grade in New York City means one thing: It’s time to start applying to high schools! While her friends are looking at school catalogs and studying for entrance exams, Steph is doodling in her notebook and waiting for art class to begin. When her art teacher tells her about LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, Steph desperately wants to apply. But she’s in the Bronx, and LaGuardia is a public school in Manhattan—which her mom would not approve of. Steph comes up with a plan that includes lying to her mom, friends, and teachers. Keeping secrets isn’t easy, and Steph must decide how far she’ll go to get what she wants.
Doodles from the Boogie Down is a sparkling semi-autobiographical middle grade graphic novel debut set in the early aughts that’s perfect for fans of Sunny Side Up by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm and Real Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham.”
Are you not amused? You will be when you see my interview with Ms. Rodriguez today:
Betsy Bird: Stephanie! Thank you so much for joining me here today. Now if there’s one thing the kids love these days, it’s graphic memoirs. This one’s just so much fun to read. What made you want to write a comic for kids in the first place?
Stephanie Rodriguez: Middle school was hard for me, I had a face full of pimples, braces, and frizzy hair. I was bullied for being super hairy and for being “weird”. I guess talking to yourself out loud is a social no-no! I wanted to share my experience of being a middle school kid in the hopes that other kids would relate to my characters and maybe help them through tough times in and out of school.
BB: Yep. Understandable. So while I think I still have to get over the fact that the year 2000 is technically historical, I love that this book is set at that time. How did you balance out the nostalgic elements with a story that kids today can relate to?
SR: I treated the nostalgic elements like a background character. Throughout the book technology, slang, and cultural references are sprinkled into the storyline. I feel like today’s tweens look back to the 2000s, in the same way, I looked at the 80s at that age. I was obsessed with music, fashion, and film from the 80s, I wanted to learn everything I could. Kids are going to have a blast reading Doodles and learning what kind of technology and entertainment was available for kids living in the 2000s.
BB: Oh, man. I think I just aged 100 years hearing you talk about how you used to look back at the 80s as the ancient past. Speaking of which, how much of the book, would you say, is true to your own life, and what elements did you fictionalize to make it work on the page?
SR: I would say the book is about 50/50. In middle school, I didn’t have a core group of friends I could call my besties. I changed schools in the 7th grade and making friends at a new school was difficult. Because I didn’t have the experience of having besties in middle school I wanted to see what it could have been like if I did. In the book, Steph has two besties Ana and Tiff who are loosely based on friends I made in my adult life.
BB: Aww. So let’s talk setting now. I lived in NYC for about 11 years and worked at New York Public Library. One of my goals in the job was to visit every single library branch in the Bronx, a goal that I failed magnificently. The Bronx is just massive, just teeming with different cultures and personalities. My question then is twofold. (1) What part of the Bronx did you grow up in and where does this book take place and (2) Why do you think the Bronx so infrequently documented in our films, television, and books?
SR: I grew up in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx and the book takes place there as well. The Bronx has been documented in film, television, and books but it’s mostly looked at in a negative light. It seems like the image of the Bronx is still wrapped up with the Bronx of the late 70s and 80s where buildings were set ablaze leaving the borough looking like a war zone. My goal was to show the Bronx in a different light, displaying the beauty of the people, landscape, and sense of community within the borough.
BB: You succeed. Speaking of NYC, for a lot of kids around the country, the whole process of having to apply for your high school is a foreign, somewhat fascinating process. So this book will feel like a kind of surreal world to a lot of them. I think for some kids it will be a relief to hear that you yourself didn’t go to LaGuardia and yet here you still are with your own GN! What kind of advice would you give kids around this age who place so much importance in doing the “right” thing with their lives?
SR: I was nervous about explaining this process in the book because it can be confusing for someone who isn’t from New York City. The process was stressful for a kid going into freshman year of high school, It’s a lot for a tween. A word of advice I would give to kids this age is that there’s no “right” choice. I didn’t get into the high school of my dreams but that didn’t stop me from becoming an artist with my own Graphic Novel! Don’t stress out it will all work out in the end.
BB: Sound advice. And, of course, writing with your own life as a guide means you never lack for material. What were some of the elements you wanted to include but just weren’t able to for one reason or another?
SR: In the book, Mr. A is the eccentric 8th-grade homeroom teacher. I wish I was able to include more of him in the book but it didn’t work out for story purposes. Mr. A is based on my 8th-grade religion teacher who had a larger-than-life personality. He was obsessed with everything Broadway and his favorite singer was Barbara Streisand, he always found a way to bring up his favorite topics during our religion lectures and it was delivered to us with lots of drama and sass.
BB: Aww. Finally, what do you have coming up next?
SR: I’m working on part two of Doodles from the Boogie Down and have other writing projects in the works that I’m pitching for Animated kids’ television ranging from 6-11 years of age and older.
Busy busy busy!
I’d like to thank Stephanie for taking the time to talk with me today about her latest. Thanks too to Kaitlin Kneafsey and the folks at Penguin Young Readers for setting this up. Doodles from the Boogie Down is out now in fine bookstores and libraries nationwide.
Filed under: Interviews
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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