Nora Ephron famously said that “Everything is copy”—a statement that Dan Santat might agree with. With A First Time for Everything (First Second, Feb. 28), a graphic memoir that chronicles his 1989 middle school trip to Europe, he shares all: the good, the bad, and the full-body-cringe-inducingly awkward. The book sees 13-year-old Dan grow from an insecure wallflower into a more confident young person as he takes risks. Most terrifying—and wonderful—of all, he meets and falls in love with his first girlfriend, Amy. Along the way, Santat lays bare his most intimate, and embarrassing, memories, from a disastrous speech delivered before an assembly of jeering peers to his first kiss with Amy (aiming for her cheek, he lands on her ear). As he tells Kirkus via Zoom from his home in Pasadena, California, “My job with this book was to lean into those awkward moments, because that’s honestly where the good stuff is when it comes to storytelling.”

The book has been years in the making—he charts its origins to 2018, when one of his sons, then 13, asked him about the first time he’d ever fallen in love. So Santat told both his children about the trip. “Their jaws just dropped wide open, just hearing about what it was like for their father to grow up in the 1980s.” Some adults may raise a few eyebrows—in Munich, where the drinking age was 14 at the time, young Dan, encouraged by a permissive teacher, gulps down a beer; wanders Paris without adult supervision; and is chased by a horde of angry punks after stealing a bicycle in Salzburg. Santat is aware that sometimes parents “try to give off this persona that we are perfect and that we can solve all the problems, because we don’t want our kids to worry about things.” But he wanted to be candid about his experiences, to depict both his triumphs and his mistakes.

Though known for his picture books, among them the Caldecott-winning The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend (2014), Santat finds the graphic format a little less constraining. “You can paint these broad strokes—like, we were traveling through London, we were traveling through Switzerland. But then you can laser-focus on particular moments—here we are in the middle of a park, and we’re listening to Beethoven being played with the string orchestra, and I remember dancing with you.”

The book has struck a chord with readers, he adds. “One of the comments that I get from a lot of people is, It felt like I was really there on the trip, it felt like I was on the bus. Maybe there is something to be said about the graphic novel format in terms of injecting someone into a particular time period.”

Santat relied on journals, photos, and letters saved by Amy, whose meticulous notes detailed everything from hotel names to weather conditions. The two also reminisced about the trip; Amy confided that her curly hair on the trip was the result of a perm she hated—a detail that made it into the book. “It was almost like being in character and reliving these moments,” he says.

He’s stayed in contact with other friends from the trip, like Shelley, who told him that she framed a picture of a dragon he drew for her. As Santat worked on the book, he posted sketches on Instagram, and other students came out of the woodwork, sharing their own memories. “In a weird way, the book kind of turned into a yearbook,” he says. “Here’s one last souvenir from this trip from 35 years ago.”

One of the most poignant scenes came from an unexpected source. Young Dan flashes back to a time before the European trip, when Shelley unexpectedly got her period, so he loaned her a sweater and gave her a ride home—something both he and Shelley had forgotten about until his mother reminded him. Moments like these “add color, because you don’t want these one-dimensional characters…the comic relief or the angry girl,” Santat says. Though he “was always willing to put myself through the wringer,” Santat was protective when it came to depicting others’ vulnerable moments; he shared that scene with Shelley to make sure she was comfortable with it.

While Santat had come to terms with some of his more humiliating moments long before writing the book, he believes that creating a graphic memoir can be therapeutic—even if artists never share the finished product with anyone. “It will give you a greater understanding about yourself and why you feel that way. And as a result, you might be able to come to a certain peace with it,” he says.

Writing a memoir can also be a joyful experience, Santat says, especially when revisiting treasured memories. “It’s almost like you’re having a conversation with your younger self. And I think that’s absolutely beautiful.”

Mahnaz Dar is a young readers’ editor.