Sarah Winifred Searle has done work for Oni Press, Filthy Figments, Image, Bedside Press, The Nib, and more — so even if her name isn’t familiar, you’ve probably seen her work. Her next project is a queer coming of age story from Lerner Publishing’s Graphic Universe: Sincerely, Harriet. The book is set in 1996 and follows tween Harriet Flores’ first summer in Chicago, where it’s steamy outside and boring and lonely inside her parents’ new apartment. To pass the time, she begins to create vivid stories about the people around her. She then strikes up an unlikely friendship with her landlady, Pearl, and learns that storytelling might be more powerful than she thought.
WWAC is proud to debut the cover of this graphic novel, available for preorder now. I also had a chance to ask her a few questions about the breadth of her work and what influenced Sincerely, Harriet.
What were your primary influences for this story?
Storytelling! It just influences so many aspects of our lives. Even if you don’t consider yourself a writer, you shape your own story simply by how you portray your life on social media and how you curate your photo albums. And we’re constantly shaped by the stories around us, whether it’s the narratives we’re given through the news, a yarn that’s been passed down in our families, a history book assigned in a class, or a new television show.
Sincerely, Harriet began as a way for me to process my appreciation for stories, both the ones I still love now, and some I grew out of. Harriet and her landlady Pearl both participate in storytelling in very different but meaningful ways, and they learn from each other.
I also wanted to tell a story about someone learning to manage chronic illness. This is something I’m going through in my own life, and through Harriet’s experiences we see both her personal journey and its parallels with that of Nicholas, who lived in her house forty years prior.
And, as always, I want to normalize queerness. Harriet just happens to like girls, and it’s no big deal.
How did you decide on a style for this work? In an AV Club interview you mention being able to experiment more with your art in this — how do you think it differs from previous work you’ve done?
This is my first novel-length graphic work, which has been both a challenge and an opportunity to try things my shorter works haven’t provided the space for. For example, almost the entire book takes place in Harriet’s family’s tiny apartment and their landlord Pearl’s parlor. I had to find a way to make these spaces look visually distinct despite being similar shapes, and a way to keep them interesting despite the lack of variation. After all, the house is essentially another character in this book, and it deserved just as much thought as the humans did.
Even if you don’t consider yourself a writer, you shape your own story simply by how you portray your life on social media and how you curate your photo albums.
I worked to accomplish this mostly through the palette. The main space of Harriet’s apartment has beige walls, not because beige looks especially good, but because it has transformative properties as a neutral. At different times of day, the room has a warmer or cooler temperature, and I used that to my advantage in timing the scenes.
It was really fun to play with that, and I hope I can develop this approach further in future comics.
It’s wild that 1996 was over twenty years ago — why pick that time period, and how do you make something feel like 1996?
The story came together in 1996 for a few reasons. I was a ’90s kid and the lazy, humid isolation of summer break before internet and mobile phones and drivers licenses was a really distinct atmosphere that suits this narrative so well. I recall my boredom feeling as stifling as the heat, and I hope that comes across in the book.
Harriet’s main arc also draws some parallels with that of Nicholas, Pearl’s son, who was quarantined in the house with polio during the 1950s. 1996 provides enough distance from that event that Pearl has some perspective on it, but not so far that it would feel completely historical to them, either. In my earliest drafts of this book, I was lucky enough to get some help from a retired woman who started her nursing career back in the 1960s. She said it was common for several decades after the polio epidemic to find iron lungs in residential storage. There were so many, and they were so huge, people just didn’t know what to do with them.
I’m passionate about not just analyzing history, but finding ways to make it more accessible to different audiences, and this was a way to shed some light on the polio epidemic for kids of today. Especially in a day and age where anti-vaxxers are gaining steam, I want to remind the next generation of voters how important vaccinations are and how many lives have been saved by them. And because Pearl and Nicholas were Black, they faced exponential challenges in finding adequate medical care. No matter how much we might wish this was in the past, there are still very real, relevant issues that marginalized people must work through today for access to the most basic healthcare. I hope this book turns a boring history lesson into a compelling narrative that will build empathy in the young people of 2019.
I create the look and feel of 1996 through what the characters wear, the music they listen to, and what Harriet watches on their tiny television with a built-in VHS player. Harriet’s parents met as straight edge punks, which influences their tastes, while Harriet’s passion for quirky family movies like Beetlejuice adds flavor both to the setting and how we imagine the inner workings of her mind. I hope, between that and the stirrup pants that I so keenly remember wearing to school, I’ve crafted a convincing vignette of the mid-90s.
You’ve done work for all kinds of audiences and genres — is there one in particular you like best? Has creating erotica ever presented a problem when working in MG/YA?
A lot of the fulfillment I feel from my job is thanks to how varied my projects are. I couldn’t pick just one genre, I get so much joy out of all of them! And honestly, I don’t think they’re as different as they seem. The thing I love most about erotica is how much of a celebration of the varied human experiences of intimacy it can be, including platonic and familial relationships, and that’s present in my favorite children’s literature, as well. I don’t craft stories with a particular audience in mind; I develop ideas for myself, first and foremost, then my agent and editors help shape them for the markets that suit them best.
Making adult comics has not yet put off any publishers from my MG/YA pitches that I know of, but it does influence other opportunities. I used to teach a lot more kids’ comic-making classes, but many schools and organizations feel they can’t risk even one upset parent. It’s an understandable conundrum, though occasionally a little frustrating.
What do you hope readers take from Sincerely, Harriet?
I think I said it best above: I hope this book turns a boring history lesson into a compelling narrative that will build empathy in new generations of voters. I hope it helps some kids harness the power of storytelling to work through their own tribulations. I hope that some young readers who don’t often see themselves reflected in media can see themselves in Sincerely, Harriet, and for Harriet’s story to help other kids understand and empathize with experiences of queerness and chronic illness.
This all makes it sound quite heavy, but I also hope it’s simply fun to read. There’s a good bit of humor to balance it out, for sure.
What other projects do you have coming up?
I’m currently focusing on drawing The Greatest Thing, a fictionalized young adult graphic memoir for First Second. It’s about some brief, intense, beautiful, queer friendships I had in high school, the comic zines we created together, and how we helped each other through very rough stages of mental health. Major content warnings for depression, self harm, and eating disorders, but I do portray these themes as compassionately and optimistically as possible.
And while I spend most of my time on that, I’m also finishing drawing Sparks, my queer adult Edwardian romance series. I’m over halfway through the story now, and Iron Circus Comics (of Smut Peddler fame) are publishing a collected edition in late 2019. If you like things sweet, sincere, and steamy, that comic’s for you! It’s currently serializing on Filthy Figments.
Sarah Winifred Searle’s Sincerely, Harriet, is due for release on May 7, 2019.