Author-illustrator Victoria Jamieson is new to graphic novels, but she proves with Roller Girl, on shelves next week, that she’s got this, thanks very much. “Full of charm and moxie,” says the Kirkus review of this book, which tells the story of two best friends, whose close friendship comes to an end one eventful summer. Astrid falls hard for roller derby and attempts to master the sport, yet her best friend Nicole’s interest in ballet grows even deeper and she’s hanging out with a girl who has a history of being unkind to Astrid. While learning the ins and outs of both roller derby and making new friends, Astrid learns a lot about herself and the difficulties of letting go.
I had an email conversation with Victoria, a roller girl herself, about this winning graphic novel.
Jules: Victoria, I love this book. And in the name of hard-hitting journalism, I'm dying to know: Do you hate clothes-shopping as much as your main character? (I do. I could relate to this.)
Victoria: Oh my goodness, YES. Personal Clothes Shopper is high on my list of priorities when I win the lottery. I'm wearing velveteen jeggings at the moment, if that tells you anything.
Jules: I'm not still in my pajamas OR ANYTHING.
I'd like to hear about your research and what sparked this story. You play roller derby yourself, yes?
Victoria: I do play roller derby! I was actually just adjusting my toe stops for this afternoon's practice. I skate with the Rose City Rollers in Portland. My derby name is Winnie the Pow (because, you know, kids' books!).
I first learned about modern roller derby through a book, the YA novel Derby Girl by Shauna Cross and the book the movie Whip It was based on. I pretty quickly became obsessed and bought my first pair of roller skates since childhood. I love the sport and the community so much, so I knew I wanted to write a book about roller derby.
Most of the research for the book came from my own experiences through years of playing the sport. However, when I started writing the book in earnest, I tried to become even more involved in the community through coaching in our recreational and junior programs. My writing enhanced my involvement with the community, and my involvement with the community enhanced my writing. That experience of life intersecting with art—and the two becoming better for it—was really meaningful and wonderful to me.
Jules: That sounds really rewarding.
I love that the protagonist is fierce and vulnerable all at once. And I love how learning how to roller derby was not easy for her. She really struggled, which made the ending even more triumphant (for her and readers). Did her struggles learning the sport mirror your own, by chance?
Victoria: I think roller derby requires both ferocity and vulnerability. There's a learning curve for everyone learning to play roller derby. I mean, when else in your life do you hit someone while wearing roller skates (on purpose, I mean)? So you have to enter the sport with some humility, because you're going to look pretty silly for a little while. I came in as a fairly good skater, because I used to Rollerblade a lot (thanks, 1990s!), but I struggled with landing effective hits, getting hit, learning strategy...oh, pretty much everything else in derby. I had plenty of frustrations that I could use in shaping my characters.
Jules: You also capture well the insecurities of the tween age. It was fleeting, but I noticed how Nicole says at the beginning of the book, “My Mom said I should start watching what I eat.” (That also says a lot about her mother, too.) Was it challenging to delve into that tween mindset?
Victoria: I was unsure about including that line, but I wanted to hint at some of the pressures Nicole might be feeling at home, even if it's not a major storyline. And, yes, I think it says as much—or more—about her mom's character. Actually, Nicole's mom was one of my favorite characters to write. I clearly remember the day when, while playing at a friend's house, I came to the realization that her mom didn't really like me. She didn't do or say anything outright. I just got the distinct impression that she preferred some of her daughter's other friends to me. I don't remember being offended by this—more sort of fascinated that a grown-up would show preference among kids like that.
To get into the tween mindset, I tried to be honest and unflinching with my memories from that age. Luckily, I kept a diary, and re-reading that was helpful in reminding me of my thoughts and feelings. Actually, to prepare for Roller Girl, since it was my first graphic novel, I did a few short comics taken from the pages of my 1989 diary. You can find those on my website.
Jules: I love your hilarious, yet sophisticated, “Moona Lisa” shirt there at that link.
Victoria: I really, really loved that shirt.
Jules: I think that line from Nicole’s mother is very authentic. Also, I laughed when Astrid's mom said something like, "I never really liked Nicole's mom anyway" when she realized that Astrid and Nicole’s friendship may be ending. That rang true as well.
One of the book's central, and very tough, questions is: How do you just stop being friends with somebody? That can be such a huge struggle at this age. My own girls are very nearly 11 and 9 years old, and I worry the friends they have now could just turn one day. Or even my own daughters could. (I'm making them all sound like zombies.) Did that part of this story come from your own experience too?
Victoria: The issue of friendships ending was certainly central for me, and it was the concept I was most interested in exploring in the book. Although the details of the story are different, the heart of the issue—the pain of a slipping friendship—was from my own experience. I had a very dear best friend all through my childhood. When I was 12, my family moved from Pennsylvania to Florida, and although we tried to keep up our friendship through letters, phone calls, and visits, it became more and more difficult to stay close. She made new friends, and I made new friends. I remember feeling really sad at our slipping friendship—and completely powerless to do anything about it.
One thing I tried to emphasize in the book is that neither Nicole nor Astrid did anything wrong. It's not like one character is good and the other is bad. They're just growing up and starting to follow their own interests and try on different personas. My own experience was a slow "turn," but I also remember the seemingly overnight zombification of some kids at that age. I think the analogy is a good one. In one instance that still brings a flush of shame to my cheeks, I was the kid who "turned" on a nice, quiet friend in favor of a more popular girl. While I'm not proud of that moment, it helped me to understand Nicole's struggle a little more.
As a side note, my childhood best friend and I have since reunited. (Thanks, social media!) She was a bridesmaid in my wedding! I made a free e-book, available on my website, about the making of Roller Girl, and you can see some pictures of us there.
Jules: That is a happy ending, if ever there was one.
One of the best things about this book is that honest ending. These two friends part ways—Astrid realizes they have both changed and that she now has way more in common with her new friends—yet no one is hateful about it. It’s true and poignant and very real.
Thanks for talking with me, Victoria!
Victoria Jamieson, roller girl, photographed by Lisa Burke Photgraphy
ROLLER GIRL. Copyright © 2015 by Victoria Jamieson. Published by Dial, New York. Images here reproduced by permission of Victoria Jamieson.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.