Q&A with AWOL author Marla Lesage

Q&A with AWOL author Marla Lesage

Image of author Marla Lesage next to book cover with girl riding a bike

A moving graphic novel, AWOL explores the realities of PTSD from a kid’s perspective. The book includes an author’s note and kid-friendly mental health resources.

As a military child, eleven-year-old Leah moves…a lot. But this summer she will be the one left behind when her best friend’s family is reassigned. To make matters worse, her mother will be away for training, leaving Leah at home with her father, who has just returned from deployment. When a new girl moves into her neighborhood, Leah must navigate the ups and downs of making a new friend while avoiding her father’s unpredictable mood swings.

In this Q&A, author Marla Lesage talks about her inspiration for the book, the process of writing and illustrating a graphic novel and the message she hopes readers will take away from reading it. AWOL is available now from your local bookstore and orcabook.com.

Describe AWOL in 3 words

Friendship, family, emotional.

What inspired you to write this story?

I wanted to write a story about a developing friendship between two girls from different backgrounds. When I thought about settings and how they affect the characters, I decided to add a military parent with PTSD. Having a parent with PTSD or other mental health disorders has a significant impact on a child. And military families have their own unique culture that affects the whole family. I love reading books set in locations I’ve been to or set in my own province and love sharing these books with my children. Before writing AWOL, I’d only written picture books but as soon as I realized this one needed to be a middle-grade book I wanted to have the setting in my own town. While the story could take place in any military town, having it set in New Brunswick is like a little gift to the children of my province!

What came first the story or the illustrations? Can you walk us through your process a bit?   

For me, the story almost always comes first and this was the case for AWOL. I wrote and revised a full manuscript before doing any sketches or illustrations. I used a mix of unplanned writing and detailed plotting to flush out the story. Once the story felt finished I did thumbnails–tiny very rough sketches–to get an idea of layout and page turns. This was followed by full-size sketches, inking, and colouring. I enjoy working with traditional media as much as possible so all of my sketches were done with pencils on paper. I scanned my sketches and fixed any errors in layout in Photoshop. Once the sketches were approved, I printed them and traced them onto better quality paper using a lightbox. I inked these with a brush pen and coloured them with alcohol ink markers. Then I re-scanned them, fixed any errors, and added more colour in Photoshop.

The book explores the realities of PTSD and how a parent’s mental health affects the entire family. Why did you want to tell this story and why in graphic novel form?

I decided to add a parent with PTSD because I noticed there weren’t a lot of books that deal with this topic. PTSD has affected my own family and I wished there were more books that dealt with this topic without being an “issue book.” I decided on graphic novel form mainly because I’m an illustrator who loves graphic novels but I think the format really lends itself to tough topics like this because there can be so much emotion in the spaces between words. The illustrations also allowed me to add emotion without needing lengthy descriptions.

What do you hope readers take away from the book?

Whether they have a parent with a mental health disorder or are dealing with their own big emotions, I hope readers dealing with similar situations will feel less alone. I also hope that readers will know that with some help, we can get through difficult emotions or situations.

What was the most rewarding and/or challenging thing about writing and illustrating this book?

I think the most challenging part was the sheer length of a middle grade graphic novel! I’m used to 32 page picture books, so jumping to a 200+ page illustrated book was a daunting task! And I’d never written anything that long before! There was definitely a learning curve to tackle.

Seeing my daughter read and re-read the final copies has been the most rewarding thing so far. She even snatched my Advanced Reading Copy and read it before I had a chance to look at it, even though she’d already read the story on my laptop ump-teen times! I’m really excited to share the story with my community and the world. I think there will be a lot of kids who can relate to the story in some way.

About the Author

Marla Lesage is a registered nurse who loves to tell stories, both real and imagined, through urban sketching, painting, illustration and words. Her art can be found in private collections in Canada, the United States and Australia. She also wrote and illustrated We Wear Masks, which won the Alice Kitts Memorial Award for Excellence in Children’s Writing. Marla lives with her family near Fredericton, New Brunswick.

Praise for AWOL

“Nuanced…Inviting art is classic comic-strip style with sturdy lines and soft color washes…Thoughtful slice-of-life realness.” –Kirkus Reviews

“Lesage is able to convey the complexities of a serious disorder in a simple, child-friendly manner…A very thought-provoking graphic novel that highlights the everyday realities of mental illness. Recommended.” –CM: Canadian Review of Materials

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