Fresh Voices Q&A with Benjamin Wilgus and Rii Abrego, creators of GRACE NEEDS SPACE!
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! 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