To the hundreds of young fans gathered at the San Diego Public Library to hear her speak, Raina Telgemeier is that rare superstar whose books recounting her adolescent insecurities reflect their own personal struggles. And so in this standing-room only spotlight, Telgemeier did not disappoint; in brutal honesty, she revealed her own fears and struggles with anxiety in a teaser for Guts, a memoir which streets on September 17, 2019.

Crowd at the Raina Telgemeier spotlight on Tuesday
The crowd waiting to hear Raina Telgemeier speak on Tuesday.

“It is about my phobias. Specifically, it is about what it feels like to have a panic attack. So what I have encountered, the thing I am most afraid of, my whole body shuts down. I start to chatter. I start to freak out,” Telgemeier said during her Tuesday spotlight. “Very, very hard to explain in words, but it’s a little bit easier to explain with pictures. So writing a graphic novel was the best I could do to get you inside of my own experiences.”

“So some of what I talk about is the fact that I started to be afraid of food and what I was going to eat, and whether those foods were going to make me sick,” she continued. “At this point my parents decided it was time I needed to see a therapist, which was another thing I felt a little ashamed about. It was the 80s, and it was pretty stigmatized. It wasn’t something you went into class and talked to your friends about.”

Telgemeier talked about how therapy helped her deal with her phobias, family dynamics, and all the adolescent issues that had plagued her young career. Therapy gave Telgemeier the courage to talk to her friends, who also had their own fears to relate. The power of reaching out and talking to others, telling their stories, is what drove her to embark on a career as a graphic novelist.

Telgemeier talked about some of the influences in her life, including Barefoot Gen, a lightly fictionalized memoir about a Hiroshima family whose lives are altered forever by the dropping of the atomic bomb.

“It taught me a great deal about empathy and about what other people go through, and what we can all do to make the world a better place,” she said.

Barefoot Gen left a palpable imprint on the young Raina Telgemeier. After college, she drew a three-page comic detailing its influence to her. She printed thousands of copies and distributed it friends and readers at comic conventions. One copy landed in the hands of a Japanese reader, who decided to translate the comic and demonstrate the book’s impact to his child. The topic of the Hiroshima bombing was not something the Japanese people wished to revisit; Japan had banned Barefoot Gen on account of its violence. The point the Japanese reader wanted to make was that somebody in the world had read Barefoot Gen. This experience once again reinforced the importance of storytelling for Telgemeier.

She next described and demonstrated her creative process with an interactive drawing session, taking ideas from young fans in the audience while also engaging in a lively Q&A. These young fans asked very insightful questions, which both surprised and delighted her.

Attendees who were able to attend Telgemeier’s talk on Tuesday left with a fond appreciation of a very human creator whose stories shined a mirror on their own personal struggles with fear and anxiety. And according to Telgemeier, therein lies the power of words.

She said, “I always return to these three things: read books, talk to people, and tell your story.”

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