Niki Smith: “I saw myself in them– girls who embraced ‘masculinity'”

5 Questions With...

Niki Smith

[Note From Frolic: Our resident YA expert Aurora Dominguez got the opportunity to interview author Niki Smith and ask her five(ish) questions. Niki’s graphic novel The Deep & Dark Blue is out January 7th!]

Aurora: What was your inspiration behind your most recent novel?

Niki: I grew up loving gender-bending adventures about girls disguising themselves as boys, living the lives they always wanted as knights and pirates and soldiers, getting into mishaps and saving the day. My copy of Tamora Pierce’s Alanna is well-worn from so many readings as a kid! I saw myself in them– girls who embraced “masculinity,” who hated dresses and got into trouble and happily defied what society told them they had to be. 

What I realized as I grew up and came out, though, was that I never saw the reverse. The life of a girl was always dreary, tedious, something to escape… but did it have to be? What about a story about someone yearning for the chance to live that life? And what if it wasn’t just a masquerade or a disguise of convenience? I wanted to write a fantasy adventure about a trans girl forging her own path– and still getting to save the day.

What character do you most relate to and why?

That’s tough… Probably Grayce! She’s not a big social butterfly; we both prefer to keep to ourselves in crowds and let others do the talking. But even though she’s quiet, she’s in no way a pushover. Grayce has things she wants to accomplish, and she’ll always find a way to get there. 

Why do you feel graphic novels are so popular and have such a voice right now?

We’re really in a graphic novel renaissance right now– the diverse voices and stories being told are incredible! For decades, all you could find were superhero comics and a few underground, self-published series. I grew up in the manga boom of the 2000s, and seeing stories that were aimed at me was incredible. Now we’ve grown up and are making our own books and telling our own stories; there are graphic novels for every age range, in every genre and art style imaginable.

Reading a graphic novel builds a different kind of visual literacy, with readers able to linger as long as they want on each page, taking in the drawn details and finding something new with every read. Panel size and shape and text all build to a climax you can’t get in prose or animation. It’s a wonderful mixture, but it’s something entirely unique, too.

And it’s inspiring! The only thing you need to make your own is some paper and a pencil– find a photocopier and a stapler, and you’re good to go! Some of my favorite comics are handmade minicomics and zines I found at local comic conventions.

Please describe the content of your latest book and what can readers expect from the read.

After a terrible coup usurps their noble house, twins Hawke and Grayson flee to stay alive and assume new identities: Hanna and Grayce. Desperation and chance lead them to the Communion of Blue, an order of magical women who spin the threads of reality to their will. 

As the twins learn more about the Communion, and themselves, they begin to hatch a plan to avenge their family and retake their royal home. While Hawke wants to return to his old life, Grayce struggles to keep the threads of her new life from unraveling, and realizes she wants to stay in the one place that will allow her to finally live as a girl. 

From Twelfth Night to Mulan to Alanna, there are countless stories of girls disguising themselves as boys to conceal their identities. The Deep & Dark Blue twists this: two siblings on the run, seeking refuge with a mysterious order of women… but for one twin, this is no disguise. It’s the chance for a young trans girl to live as herself for the first time.

What’s next for you in the book world?

I’m not sure yet! I’d love to continue Grayce and Hawke’s adventure and expand their story– it’s a world of magic inspired by textile arts, with The Deep & Dark Blue focused on spindles and weaving. It’d be great to dive into it more, and get a chance to write about cat’s cradle and knotwork and the mysterious blue dye at the heart of it all. But I’m also working on a contemporary middle grade graphic novel inspired by my years as a queer 4-H kid, growing up in Kansas. No matter what, I want to keep telling LGBT stories and give kids and teens the chance to see themselves.

Who is your favorite writer right now and why?

I will happily devour anything Ann Leckie writes. Ancillary Justice and the rest of the Imperial Radch trilogy are a breath of fresh air in science fiction, and the audio book narrator is really outstanding. (I do almost all of my reading as audio books while I’m drawing!) I’m definitely due for another reread. For graphic novels, Emily Carroll, Tillie Walden and Jillian Tamaki are all superb.

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