Fresh Voices Q&A

Q&A with Grace Needs Space! creators, Benjamin Wilgus and Rii Abrego!


What inspired you to write Grace Needs Space!? What inspired your art for Grace Needs Space!?

BEN: All of my own work that I’m most proud of started from a place of deep self-indulgence, and Grace Needs Space! was no different. The story combines two things I find super interesting: imagining what it could look like to live a normal life in space and digging down into the complex relationships and messy feelings involved in even the most amicable divorce. When my own parents split up, my dad would take my sister and I on very long road trips—first across the US, and then later through Europe once he moved overseas—and I drew heavily on those experiences while writing this book. Just like I was excited to take a car ferry across the Baltic Sea and wander the old city in Stockholm, Grace is thrilled to ride a space elevator down to the surface of Titan and visit its methane lakes. And just like my sister and I stressed our mother out by calling her from a hostel doorstep in the middle of the night to cheerfully inform her we didn’t know where Dad was, I’m sure Grace’s mom is alarmed to hear that the engines of Ba’s freighter aren’t working how they should. (To my dad’s credit, at no point were we ever at risk of ending up stranded in the void of space.)

RII: To prepare for drawing Grace Needs Space!, I dove into a lot of classic sci-fi! It’s one thing to look at pictures of planets and rockets, but it’s a whole other thing to imagine them as places where people live. So while the world was heavily inspired by space photos, the International Space Station, etc., I also owe a lot to works like Alien, Star Wars, Planetes, etc. for helping me kickstart my brain into understanding how humans would exist in these spaces.

What was the most difficult part about writing or illustrating the book? What part was the easiest?

BEN: Gotta be honest, the most difficult part of the writing process was that almost all of it happened in March and April of 2020. But even when things were real grim, what helped the most with staying focused and making progress was knowing that Rii was counting on me. Drawing a graphic novel takes a ton of time and work, and if I slipped up too badly on my deadline, it would have made it much, much harder for Rii to stay on her own schedule. A comic like this is a team effort, and I didn’t want to let her down!

RII: I’ve drawn plenty of human characters, so the easiest part for me was drawing Grace and her family. The hardest part was trying to mesh my usual character style, which is sort of soft and round, with the sci-fi elements in a way that didn’t feel jarring. I didn’t want them to contrast each other too much—I wanted the reader to feel comfortable in this world, not alienated by it.

What character or element of the story do you identify with the most and why?

BEN: Like I said earlier, Grace’s trip with her Ba was definitely inspired by my own childhood! But the thing present-day Ben relates to most strongly is the fact that Grace is forever listening to Titan documentaries in the background of whatever else she’s doing. I’m one of those people who always has a podcast or a YouTube video playing while I’m cleaning the house or making dinner, and when I have a pile of mundane work to do, the only thing that keeps my butt at my desk is having a Twitch stream of someone building a video game house going in another window.

RII: Grace laments her boring space station life, much like I lamented my boring small-town Alabama life as a kid. She’s so interested in the world beyond, but she feels like she’s being stifled by the adults in her life. It’s a frustrating thing to deal with when you’re young and at your most curious! Whether you think it was a good idea or not, that little taste of agency she takes hold of felt really good in the moment, haha!

What do you want kids today to take away from this story?

BEN: It’s extremely difficult to be a kid and managing a split household can make things even harder— your routine gets all messed up, it’s hard for you to know what to expect, adults often don’t take you seriously and blame you for anything that goes wrong, and sometimes things will happen to you that feel insanely unfair. A lot of kids don’t have much agency when it comes to the things that matter to them, and not all parents and guardians are very good at respecting what kids have to say or making sure their needs are met. I hope that kid readers can see themselves not only in what Grace is excited about, but also what she struggles with. If this book helps even one kid understand their own feelings a little bit better and helps them figure out how to talk to the adults in their lives about it, that would be wonderful. I would love that so much.

RII: I want them to come away with the understanding that their feelings and agency are important, and that they deserve equal respect. That adults are not perfect and sometimes shoulder the blame. And also that space is very, very cool.

What are you currently reading?

BEN: I’m almost finished with Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands by Kate Beaton, and it is, of course, absolutely wonderful. She’s so stupidly good at comics, it’s absurd. I’m also neck-deep in E.K. Weaver’s new webcomic, Shot and Chaser, which I adore—she has a knack for nuanced characters and acting in comics that’s so unique and so lovely to see. (Please note that neither of these are comics for children I cannot stress that enough.)

RII: Not a very exciting choice, but lately I’ve been reading Skip and Loafer by Misaki Takamatsu. It’s a pretty breezy slice-of-life, but it navigates the characters’ relationships so deftly and always leaves me feeling bright and refreshed. It makes writing characters look so easy!!


This interview was made possible by the RHCB DEI Outreach committee. 
Grace Needs Space!

Grace Needs Space! By Benjamin A. Wilgus and Rii Abrego

To the moon and back! A sci-fi middle-grade graphic novel about a young girl's long-awaited summer trip across space with one of her moms. But when her relationship with her mom goes sideways, so does her trip. Will Grace be able to save her summer vacation before it ends?

Grace is SO EXCITED to fly a freighter from her home space station (and away from her BORING mother Evelyn) to a faraway moon! Plus, she’ll get some quality time with her FUN mom Kendra—something Grace definitely needs. Finally, a real adventure that Grace can get excited about while the rest of her space station friends go away for their summer vacations.

But when Kendra is too focused on work, Grace’s first big trip suddenly becomes kind of lonely. Grace had so many plans for fun. But all it takes is one quick decision to explore the moon by herself before Grace’s adventure suddenly becomes not so out of this world at all. With her mom mad at her, Grace wants nothing more than to return home. Then their ship breaks down. Will Grace be able to get through to her mom and save their trip in the end?

Praise for Grace Needs Space

“A genuine thrill. Perfect for kids who loved Jennifer L. Holm’s Lion of Mars.” —Booklist, starred review

“The sci-fi setting creates high stakes for this realistic story of a tween ready for adventure, navigating her relationships with separated parents.”—School Library Journal

“A tender story that explores the complexity of familial bonds as deftly as it does the outer regions of space.”—Kirkus Reviews

“Though the story takes place among the cosmos, the earthly truths surrounding love and connection proves artfully rendered.” —Publishers Weekly

Fresh Voices: Q&A with Michelle Meadows

A rollicking, rhyming, magical adventure in this Step 1 Reader featuring a young wizard in training!

What inspired you to write Maxie Wiz and Her Dragon

I have always loved magic. “Sabrina The Teenaged Witch” and “Charmed” are among my favorite shows. I try to write books I would have wanted to read when I was a little girl. Over the years, I have read a LOT of books about children doing magic, but I couldn’t find any young books featuring a Black girl doing magic. I really wanted to change that.

What was the most fun part of writing the book?

Maxie Wiz is a problem solver. So, the most fun part was coming up with solutions to the various challenges Dragon experiences. For example, when Dragon can’t get to sleep, Maxie Wiz casts a spell to give him some teddy bears to snuggle with. She wants to make Dragon happy.

What character or element of the story do you identify with the most and why?

Definitely Maxie! I named her Maxie because she does everything to the max. I like to do things to the max; I can’t help it. When I set a goal, I go all in. Maxie is ambitious and works hard to learn spells. She doesn’t like making mistakes, but of course, sometimes she does. Like me, Maxie dreams big. If I could do magic, I would totally cast a spell to get a dragon!

What do you want kids today to take away from this story?

I want kids to know that anything is possible with our imagination. And I want kids to enjoy the warm relationship between Maxie and Dragon.

What are you currently reading?

I’m reading Kindred by Octavia Butler for a book club I’m in; I’m looking forward to our discussion. And I’m re-reading a book by Robert McKee called Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting.

The Fresh Voices series is brought to you in coordination with the RHCB DEI Book Club Committee.

Fresh Voices: Q&A with Camryn Garrett

What inspired you to write FRIDAY I’M IN LOVE? 

I really wanted to write something inspired by the teen movies that I grew up loving, but with a character like me at the center! I loved the idea of coming out being this really joyous thing, so I decided to center the story on that.

What was the most difficult part about writing the book? What part was the easiest?

 I think revising it during the earlier parts of the pandemic was really hard. It’s supposed to be a rom-com, but I think it was hard to lean into the comedy when I wasn’t having a lot of fun myself, and I think it was really a struggle to do those first two rounds. Coming up with the playlists was probably the easiest!

What character or element of the story do you identify with the most and why?

  I really identify with Siobhan not understanding how she identifies and trying to figure it out. I think that’s a struggle I’ve had for the past few years before getting comfortable with the idea that my identity may change and that it’s okay. I think it was always presented to me as something simple, like you knew you were gay or you didn’t, and even though Siobhan’s sexuality journey isn’t the main story, I like knowing that it’s there anyway.

What do you want kids today to take away from this story?

 That they should celebrate themselves and who they are, especially if they’re Black or queer or both! I remember a period where editors and agents were saying that they didn’t want any more coming out stories and I think that all of our milestones are important and should be celebrated, especially when we live in a world that actively works to make things hard for us.

What are you currently reading?

An ARC of Morgan Matson’s first middle grade! I’m really excited about it!


Download the Camryn Garrett Discussion Guide

The Fresh Voices series is brought to you in coordination with the RHCB DEI Book Club Committee.

Fresh Voices: Q&A with Author Liz Montague

Welcome to the Fresh Voices series! We are excited to share a special Q&A with author Liz Montague about her new Young Adult Graphic Novel, MAYBE AN ARTIST.

Praise for Maybe an Artist

“Joyful and thoughtful—The Bulletin, starred review

 “An inspiring journey of self-discovery, self-expression, and self-love” —Publishers Weekly, starred review


What inspired you to write MAYBE AN ARTIST? 

I wrote it because Annie Kelley, my editor, reached out and asked if I’d be interested in doing a graphic memoir after seeing me on a blog called Cup of Jo! Once it was in my awareness I was inspired by my journey through education as a way of framing the story. I was fresh out of college and still processing that I-just-graduated-now-what shockwave and school seemed like the only thing I really knew anything about.

What was the most difficult part about writing the book? What part was the easiest?

It doesn’t come naturally to me to elaborate, so that was very difficult! I’m a super concise person, which is great for single-panel cartoons, where you have to cram a lot of big ideas into very small real estate, but not so great when writing a book. Left to my own devices, the book seriously would’ve been 20 pages. The easiest part was the cover, I absolutely love the jacket art! It’s my favorite thing I’ve ever done.

What character or element of the story do you identify with the most and why?

I guess the Intro because timeline-wise it’s the most recent. I’m currently really identifying with page 5 of the book where I say, “I have no thoughts left. My brain is completely empty.” I’m sure a lot of people are feeling that during this post-Thanksgiving but pre-Winter Break time period!

What do you want kids today to take away from this story?

I hope kids take away that it’s okay to fully embrace where you’re currently at. I wish I could tell my younger self to not stress so much and just be open and present, but that’s also something my adult self probably needs to hear too. We’re all told “nobody has it figured out,” but I hope me showing myself really not having it figured out for most of my life offers comfort to someone.

What are you currently reading?

I’m currently reading LOVE AND OTHER WORDS by Christina Lauren; a friend recommended it and so far I’m really loving it. A cozy feel-good read is so great, especially once the weather gets cold like this. I’m also listening to EMBER IN THE ASHES by Sabaa Tahir on audiobook which I’m also loving, it really jazzes up my morning walk!

The Fresh Voices series is brought to you in coordination with the RHCB DEI Book Club Committee.

Fresh Voices: Q&A with Author Marina Budhos

Welcome to the Fresh Voices series! We are excited to share a special Q&A with author Marina Budhos about her new Young Adult novel, WE ARE ALL WE HAVE.

 “Budhos weaves a rich tapestry of words that navigates a yearning for acceptance, love, and the unerring need for freedom.”

Booklist, starred review

What inspired you to write WE ARE ALL WE HAVE? 

I often start with the general atmosphere or larger situation that I want to explore. In this case I knew I wanted to write about a family that were asylum seekers to give readers another window into the immigrant experience—especially in 2019, when everything was so volatile, with the family separation crisis at the border.

Then I find my characters. And literally one day I had a vision on the subway, and I felt I could ‘see’ Rania—with her wild black hair, her kohl-rimmed eyes, her black combat boots, her Brooklyn attitude. I knew she was a poet and her father was a journalist who had gotten in trouble in Pakistan. I knew her mother was a bit haughty and proud and suffered quietly without fully telling the truth to her daughter. I wanted for readers to get a chance to get beyond the headlines and feel for these complicated characters, whose story isn’t neat, doesn’t fit into a box.

What was the most difficult part about writing the book? What part was the easiest?

The most difficult part was I wrote an entirely different manuscript. My editors (Dana Carey and Wendy Lamb) were encouraging, but I knew something wasn’t right, wasn’t dynamic enough, and I literally pulled the manuscript down to its studs, retained my main characters and their background, and set the narrative in a different direction—creating, yes, a road story. I would say I used at most ten percent of the old material, even while holding on to my core character. I had to admit that I hadn’t yet found the right story environment to bring out what I was trying to say. In all my years of writing and publishing, it was one of the most humbling experiences for me as an author.

However, the hardest part also became the easiest. Once I tapped into my new approach, the voice and energy of Rania just flew out onto the page, especially when I was writing about her teenage life in Brooklyn, her friendship with Fatima, and her poetry. 

What character or element of the story do you identify with the most and why?

Rania! Hands down. I identify with a character who is fierce and stubborn and full of will, but sometimes doesn’t know how to access her own vulnerability; who can even be a bit shut down internally. Rania is also an aspiring writer, someone who loves words, who grew up in a household of words and reading, as I did. In the course of the book, Rania finds a certain kind of inner sanctuary—that of becoming her whole self, the one that had pushed down so many memories from Pakistan. And while I haven’t gone through what Rania has, I do understand that need to be so functional in the outer world, you forget to nurture your inner self. We both use words to find our way to our own selves.

What do you want kids today to take away from this story?

First, I just want kids to go on the road with my characters and get swept up in what it feels like to have the whole world bursting open ahead of you, to fall in love for the first time, to discover an America that is yours.

But I also hope my readers learn or identify with the fragile nature of immigration and understand all the different kinds of reasons someone’s life can suddenly be shattered. There are many layers to the story. It’s about political asylum, which kids may not understand. It’s about mothers and daughters, and what it feels like to find your own path, not just follow the one that has been put before you. It’s about friendship at the end of high school, when you and your best friend who you were always joined at the hip with are starting to go in separate directions and you have to start dealing with your differences.

In general, I also hope kids come to understand something about the immigration system and what it means to make your case—that sometimes it’s not about the story you have, but the story immigration authorities want to hear. I also hope I’ve captured the general atmosphere around immigration at that time, how scary and unpredictable it was.

What are you currently reading?

I’m reading a mix of things that have to do with research for forthcoming projects and just my own reading pleasure. I am reading Tomorrowland, a book about the 1964­­-65 World’s Fair, as I am musing a potential new middle grade book set during that time frame. (No commitments yet!) I am also reading about World War II in Holland, for another project. And I’m also enjoying Sara Saedi’s Americanized: Rebel Without A Green Card, Ari Tison’s Saints of the Household, and I am *supposed* to be cracking open Wolf Hall for my adult reading group.

The Fresh Voices series is brought to you in coordination with the RHCB DEI Book Club Committee.
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