Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Rachel Elliott!

It’s time to Kick Back with Kick-butt!

Today we’re chatting with Rachel Elliott, the author of


Fifth grade is just not Riley’s vibe. Everyone else is squaded up–except Riley. Her best friend moved away. All she wants to do is draw, and her grades show it.

One thing that makes her happy is her favorite comedian, Joy Powers. Riley loves to watch her old shows and has memorized her best jokes. So when the class is assigned to write letters to people they admire, of course Riley’s picking Joy Powers!

Things start to look up when a classmate, Cate, offers to help Riley with the letter, and a new kid, Aaron, actually seems to get her weird sense of humor. But when mean girl Whitney spreads a rumor about her, things begin to click into place for Riley. Her curiosity about Aaron’s two dads and her celebrity crush on Joy Powers suddenly make more sense.

Let’s talk to this delightful author about her marvelous book!
This is Rachel. Everyone say, “Hi, Rachel!”

Welcome to Kick-Butt Kidlit, Rachel! Tell us about yourself!

Hello! I’m Rachel, she/her. I’m a queer illustrator, artist, and comic-maker. I grew up in rural Oklahoma, and now live in Kentucky. I’m a big fan of baseball, tacos, cats, and comedians. My debut middle grade graphic novel, THE REAL RILEY MAYES, was released in May of 2022. If you love secret codes, parallel cat universes, and dude-ish girls who act out humorous death scenes, you’ll want to read this book.

I’m in!!

What was the inspiration behind THE REAL RILEY MAYES?

I started drawing THE REAL RILEY MAYES as a picture book character, but she grew up on me. When I joined the kidlit community, picture books were *thee* big gig for an illustrator. I drew a character sheet of a girl in pigtails playing with tonka trucks and imagining herself with five o’clock shadow.

The big questions in this girls’ life would probably happen when she was a bit older- but I couldn’t fathom writing a prose novel. Around the same time, Cece Bell’s EL DEAFO came out, and a graphic novel was the perfect fit for RILEY.

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on THE REAL RILEY MAYES?

I did a lot of research to make RILEY’s world as true-to-life as possible. I discovered that some school discipline policies list “drawing a school on fire” (even as a joke) as a more serious offense than killing insects on purpose. I read a recent climate survey from GLSEN and discovered that 95% of LGBTQ students encounter homophobic remarks at school, and 25% are physically harassed at school. I also learned that some school library computers use filtering software that makes it difficult to learn about LGBTQ+ people. RILEY navigates these obstacles with a lot of spirit and “moxie.”  

My fave thing I discovered is a fancy academic social-science article called “Imaginary Worlds in Middle Childhood: A Qualitative Study Of Two Pairs of Coordinating Paracosms..” Basically, a “paracosm” is a fantasy world. The researcher interviewed pairs of friends, ages 10-12, who created fantasy worlds together. This discovery inspired NYANLAND, a fantasy world that Cate invents and Riley steps into.

THE REAL RILEY MAYES (© Rachel Elliott)

The book is a graphic novel and you are both the author and the illustrator (which is very cool!) How do you approach a story when you’re working on both aspects like that? Sketch out pictures first? Outline first? What’s your process like?

Everyone has to fumble a bit to find the right process for them. For example, some comic makers start by writing a script. I have tried this ten times and all I got was ten horrible scripts!

I start with pictures. I sketch a character doing different activities with different emotions. I draw 4-5 squares on a page, draw the character in them, and see what happens when they talk with speech balloons. Eventually that feels too small. I write an outline, and then use graph paper to sketch out scenes that are multiple pages long. One of the first RILEY scenes I drew was set in her gym class. Those pages evolved into chapter four, where Whitney whispers LESBO! at Riley through the volleyball net.

Writing and revising graphic novels is like a triathlon: there’s pictures, words, and page turns to think about. Thankfully my agent, Susan Hawk, is a very observant editorial agent. My editor, Donna Bray, and my art director, Dana Fritts, are both wise and inventive. They helped me develop a revision process that worked for me.

If you could transport your characters across book dimensions, which book would you most like them to end up in and why?

Ooh! Each character- Riley, Cate, and Aaron- would each want to be in a different kind of book.

Riley is a jokey kid who draws comics instead of doing homework. She’d step into DOGMAN and make it super-queer.

Imaginative Cate would love to be in an animal-forward fantasy like FLORA AND ULYSSES or maybe REDWALL . 

Aaron, the aspiring stuntman, probably got a SIMONE BILES biography at the Scholastic book fair. I’d like to think one day he’d be on the cover of one of those biographies.

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

Middle grade readers understand complicated things, *and* are very open-minded and curious. A four year old is curious- they ask 200 questions a day – but there’s a lot of deep things that they won’t understand for a few years. Middle grade readers are ready for those big questions, they just feel a bit of peer pressure when it comes to saying the questions out loud.

This is something RILEY struggles with in the book. She has questions about queerness, about Aaron’s two dads, about why her new friend Cate stays friends with a bully. She doesn’t put these questions into words until she starts drafting letters to her favorite TV comedian, Joy Powers.

Any hints about your next book project?

I’m juggling a couple different graphic novel proposals. It’s hard to say what will happen, but I’m crossing my fingers that a future book will involve at least two of the following: mysteries, siblings, and cats.

Ooooh, already sounds awesome! Can’t wait until you can share more!

What has been the most surprising part of your publishing journey?

I was very surprised to find out that many grant-giving organizations are interested in kids’ book projects. RILEY would not have been possible without a generous Artist Enrichment Grant from Kentucky Foundation for Women. They support feminist artists creating work that leads to social change, and RILEY fit their mission.

What are you reading right now?

I’m reading THE LAST LAST-DAY-OF-SUMMER by Lamar Giles, and GUNCLE by Stephen Rowley. The first is  the kind of summer reading I loved as a fifth grader: fun adventure with great characters. The second is a humorous and heartfelt adult novel about a gay uncle and former-famous-actor who finds himself parenting his niece and nephew after their mother dies.

What’s your favourite piece of kick-butt advice?

From other graphic novelists who want artists to avoid injury – Stretch beforehand, and don’t try to make everything perfect.

From Garth Greenwell’s address to Bennington College, at a point in the speech where he felt awkward giving advice – Every artist makes it up as they go along.

This advice was intended for artists and writers, but could apply to many situations, haha!


Thank you so much for joining us, Rachel!

Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out THE REAL RILEY MAYES!
It’s on shelves now!

Add THE REAL RILEY MAYES on Goodreads!

Connect with Rachel on Twitter, Instagram, or through her website!

Click here to enter to win a copy of THE REAL RILEY MAYES!
Contest closes Friday, September 2nd at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading!


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