Cartoonist and author Raina Telgemeier spun her childhood dental trauma into the graphic novel ''Smile'', a staple on the ''New York Times'' best-seller list for more than two years; now she's mined family-vacation memories for a sequel, ''Sisters''

By Stephan Lee
August 15, 2014 at 04:00 AM EDT

Smile was such an unexpected and huge hit. Who are your biggest fans?
I get the most letters from 9-year-old girls, but I also get a lot from their mothers. Many readers who respond to it are my age [37]. Since the books are set in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I have so much fun peppering them with references to that time. I also hear from people who are going through dental dramas themselves.

For Sisters, how did you choose another episode from your life to write about?
My family took a road trip when I was 13, from San Francisco to Colorado. All road trips have some drama to them, but this one involved my sister’s pet snake being loose in the car somewhere. We assumed it had died, but that didn’t turn out to be the case! It’s the kind of story that goes down in family history. I told the story partly in flashback because I thought focusing on my relationship with [my sister] Amara would give meat to the story — being trapped in a car with your nemesis is always fun!

What did your sister think of the book?
I showed it to her before anyone else. I said, ”Tell me if you think this is fair, tell me if you’re offended.” Her only response was ”Wow, I didn’t realize I was such a jerk when I was a kid.” When I asked her what she thought of me at this time, she said, ”I don’t know, you were just some teenager.” [Laughs] I did the best I could with my own memories — I didn’t want it to be a story of one ”good” and one ”bad” sister.

Are adults still hesitant to see graphic novels as worthwhile for kids?
When I first dipped my toes into publishing, graphic novels were still looked at as ”other.” In 10 years, we’ve had a sea change. Parents and teachers are seeing their value as a reluctant-reader tool. ”Author” is a new word I hear when people are describing me, and I think it’s wonderful. I’m a graphic novelist, cartoonist, and author — it makes a difference.

You’re not afraid to get into some real issues in your books. Has that gotten you in trouble?
Because my books are bright and cartoony, little kids pick them up. I guess 5-year-olds aren’t ready for a discussion about puberty or spin the bottle. [Laughs] Some kids freak out because the dental depiction in Smile is a little graphic, but there are also a lot of boys who like it because it’s a little gross.

Comic books have long been seen as a boy thing. Are women still being underserved?
There are more girls who love reading comics than ever, but there can always be more. Faith Erin Hicks is writing fantastic YA graphic novels, and so is Hope Larson. It’s nice to know my readers have wonderful books to graduate to.