Interview with Lauren Tarshis, author of the super popular I SURVIVED series, now with a new 9/11 graphic novel

I SURVIVED: THE ATTACKS OF SEPTEMBER 11, 2001

Photo Credit: David Dreyfuss

Lauren Tarshis is the author of the New York Times bestselling I Survived series of which there are 20 and counting! Each of these historical fiction books focuses on an iconic event from history, and tells the story through the eyes of a child who was there. The theme of the series is resilience: how human beings can struggle through even the most difficult experiences and somehow not simply survive but heal — and ultimately thrive. Now in time for the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, the bestselling I Survived the Attacks of September 11 has been adapted to graphic novel format to become I SURVIVED: THE ATTACKS OF SEPTEMBER 11, 2001, written by Lauren and illustrated with a gorgeous, realistic and contemporary art style by Corey Egbert. The Mixed-Up Files is excited to welcome Lauren Tarshis to our blog.

 

Meira: Hi Lauren, thanks so much for joining us over on The Mixed-Up Files!
The original I Survived the Attacks of September 11 was first published in 2012. What was the impetus to adapting it into a graphic novel in 2021?

Lauren: Scholastic proposed the idea of transforming my series into graphic novels, and at first I didn’t understand their reasoning. The stories were already written, right? But I trust the Scholastic team so much — my editor Katie Woehr cares as much about my series as I do, and understands how much work, care, and LOVE I put into creating each book, taking complicated topics and trying to make them accessible to kids, and bringing my characters to life for my readers. And so I green-lighted the Titanic graphic novel, which was an incredible experience. Fortunately Scholastic was able to hire Georgia Ball to write the scripts, and she captures my stories so perfectly for this format. And the artists they have chosen create such glorious worlds for my books. What a joy it’s been — first Titanic, then Shark Attacks, and most recently I Survived the Nazi Invasion. September 11 was a natural choice because of the anniversary. And what I’ve realized is that these books make my stories accessible to an entirely different audience of readers, including kids who either don’t like to read or struggle to read. And this is so exciting to me.

Meira: In I SURVIVED: THE ATTACKS OF SEPTEMBER 11, 2001 one really feels like they are there. At the end in an Author’s Note you talk about how you lived in New York at the time but was en route from a trip abroad without your children, and your own personal terror at not being with them as you were rerouted back to London. Having been in New York on that fateful day myself, with my husband who worked in the World Financial Center, I really felt how well you capture the city, the mood, and what happened. I love the choice to tell the story through the eyes of a boy whose father is a firefighter. It’s a brilliant choice as the firefighters are such heroes in the fabric of New York City—even before this act of terrorism, —and so many of their lives were tragically lost. Did you consider other eyes from which to tell the story before settling on Lucas’s?

Lauren: Thank you so much for these kind words. I actually struggled through several drafts of this book before I realized that ultimately this book wasn’t just about September 11, but about an NYFD family. I started from scratch, delved into the culture and history of the NYFD, and also created a pretty “big” front story of Lucas dealing with concussions and the loss of football as a focus and a way of coping with his father’s injury from a warehouse fire years before. The size and depth of the character’s front story varies depending on the nature of the historical event I’m writing about. 9/11 is so intense and aspects are so complicated and potentially overwhelming for young readers. Focusing on other aspects of Lucas’s life enabled me to tell the story in a way that was appropriate for my younger readers.

Meira: How do you conduct research for the books in which there is less of a personal connection and you are not immediately familiar with the setting, time period and community? How do you put yourself into the shoes of a child through which you tell the story?

Lauren: I travel to all of the places I write about (with the exception of the bottom of the North Atlantic to see the Titanic wreckage and to the shores of Japan to research the 2011 tsunami). I want to walk in my characters’ footsteps, see and feel what they are feeling. For 9/11, of course, this was easier because I grew up in CT, went to college in NYC and work in NYC. Those two towers were part of my own landscape. But for other settings, those visited are so important. Another important step in researching the books is talking to people who actually experienced the event, or who have had stories passed down, or reading diaries of letters.

Meira: Can you talk a little bit about the themes of the I Survived series—on one hand kids have a lurid fascination with disaster, on the other hand your books offer a strong sense of resilience, which in this current time seems more important than ever. How do you achieve this balance?

Lauren: This is a great question. The theme of the series is resilience and healing — I try not portray a realistic sense of how we cope with loss, how we can slowly heal, how we can help each other and ask for help. But I’m also trying to write engaging adventure stories that kids — including struggling readers — will read. Finally, I want to build their knowledge in history, science, or important cultural touchstones and references points. I would say that I give equal weight to these three strands of the series.

Meira: What was it like to see your words come to life in this way? Authors whose books are turned into movies are often asked how it feels to see their characters with specific features, and their story acted out. What is it like to see your story told in this graphic format?

Lauren: I do feel that the experience of the graphic novels has been akin to seeing my books turned into an animated series. It’s been wonderful — because the team has done such a superb job. I’ve been dazzled by all of the artists who have worked on the series, and Corey Egbert was such a fantastic choice for this book.

Meira: I read an interview with you in which you mention how you started the series for your son and as an answer to reluctant readers. Can you talk a little bit about that here in light of this now being a graphic novel. (And I ask as the mother of two sons who find even short text tedious, especially if the font is small, but will devour anything in graphic format regardless of font size.)

Lauren: I so related to your boys, because not only were my boys reluctant readers but I struggled to read. And so these are the readers I’m picturing as I’m writing the books, and these are the readers I’m hoping will especially love the graphic novels.

Meira: Are there plans for more of the series to become graphic novels? Or for new I Survived books?

Lauren: We just finished I Survived the Grizzly Attacks, 1967, and the team is working on I Survived Hurricane Katrina. There are more planned after that, but we haven’t yet decided which topics.

Meira: What advice would you have for writers looking to break into series writing, in particular for reluctant readers?

Lauren: I would say that reluctant readers “deserve” access to important stories, fascinating chapters in history, characters who will inspire them and fortify them as they face challenges. Just because a child doesn’t love to read doesn’t mean they aren’t deeply curious about the world. Writers for reluctant readers have to work a little harder to make stories that much more engaging, to pull the reader through the book using suspense, rich descriptive details, and humor. These readers need to feel deeply connected to the characters, and invested in what happens. I will also say that there is no more rewarding audience to write for. NOTHING is more inspiring and motivating to me then en email from a kid saying “I hate to read but love your series!”

Meira: Is there anything I haven’t thought to ask that you’d like our readers to know?

Lauren: I just want to thank you for the chance to be a part of your wonderful blog, and for your thoughtful questions.

Meira: The pleasure is ours, thank YOU!

I SURVIVED: THE ATTACKS OF SEPTEMBER 11, 2001 can be purchased here or or wherever fine books are sold.

Meira Drazin
Reading From the Mixed-Up Files as a child in Toronto is one of the main reasons Meira Drazin always dreamed of living in New York City. Although she realized her dream and got to live in Manhattan for 18 years, she was disappointed to have never located the bed Jamie and Claudia sleep in at the Met. Meira’s debut middle grade novel HONEY AND ME was the winner of the 2016 Sydney Taylor Manuscript Award and is forthcoming from Scholastic Press. Pitched as a ‘Jewish Penderwicks’ or All-of-a-Kind Family meets Judy Blume, the novel follows Milla as she navigates sixth grade in the shadow of her fearless best friend. Along with her husband and four children, Meira Drazin now lives in London, another city of wonderful museums and adventure.
1 Comment
  1. Lauren Tarshis, you are so cool. I was in NYC on 9/11 and I still can’t even bear to look at kidlit written on the subject, so I’m grateful to you to have made a book to educate kids about that day in your super-beloved I SURVIVED format.