Picture Books for Grownups: A Conversation With the Author of Are You My Boyfriend?
by Jen Doll
In 2006, Christina Bryza was working in publishing, reading children’s books daily as part of her job. She found herself envious of how those pithy picture books could take a complex problem, deconstruct and decipher it, and tie so many life questions up with a solution by the end. Reading them, she says, “You’d learn something, but you wouldn’t necessarily know you learned something, you’d just feel better.” Not completely fulfilled by her post-grad 9-to-5, nor her dating life, she wanted something like that for herself, a friendly, handy explainer of modern adult life. She jotted down some notes, comparing P.D. Eastman’s classic kids book Are You My Mother? to the question she found herself thinking over and over again: “Are you my boyfriend?” It wouldn’t be until some years later that she was reminded of the idea by friends at a baby shower. “Everyone in the room was like, you need to do that,” she says. “So I did.”
Are You My Boyfriend? is now out from Gallery Books. Loosely based on the structure of Are You My Mother?, it’s the illustrated story of a woman looking for love. Though you can “totally read it in five minutes,” Bryza hopes it’ll hit on questions about what exactly her readers are doing romantically and why. I talked to her recently about her grownup picture book.
This has been a long time in the works, from the initial idea back in 2006 to the book’s publication last week. Can you tell me about that journey?
Part of me is like, why did it take me so long? But I think I needed the space between the original concept and writing it. If i’d written it at 22, it would have been angry, “No, I’m not your boyfriend, I’m a douche bag.” Often there seems to be the idea that romantic failure is the guy’s fault, but that’s not true, there are a lot of fantastic men in the world.
What was the writing process like?
From the idea to writing, that was six years of growing up a bit. But the actual writing, once I decided to do it, didn’t take very long at all. I wrote the publisher a little email with, “Are you my publisher?” They looked it over and about a week later said they were interested. It unrolled from there. I didn’t meet the illustrator until a few months after that. We had a really good collaboration. I provided a lot of the ideas; he took it and ran with it.
How true to life are the characters in the book: “the wealthy cad,” “the artsy lad,” “the average dude,” “the guy who’s still in love with his ex”?
I have encountered more or less each of these characters. Some are strikingly similar to their real selves — though one of my exes flipped through the book really casually and didn’t recognize himself — others are more composites. But more than specific characters, I wanted to address the question of why don’t relationships work out? I started brainstorming that: they’re too into their job, they’re too into their sports team, and so on…
Why DO things work out?
I think it’s two people being ready for each other at the right time.
And being the right people…
Right, being the right person for you. Partly, I just wanted to write a fun story. I was working on other stuff, and I had writer’s block, and I wanted to write this. But the more time I have to get to know the book and the character, the more I see there’s so much more to it.
What are the other layers you see?
Rejection is a big part of it. The main character gets shut down again and again and again [in her search for love]. But she doesn’t take it personally; she just goes on. That’s a role model! I try to be like that, but it’s not my instinctive first reaction. When she gets stood up at the movie theater, she goes and sees the movie anyway. And her future partner is in there. She doesn’t see him, but he’s in there. He sees her in the bookstore, too. Maybe he would have come over at the end and said hi anyway, but I liked the idea that it was the consequence of her being out in the world and taking care of herself.
In the end, she does find someone. Why does it work out then?
I think the reason it works for her is that she puts herself out there but she doesn’t compromise her own interests. I had someone say, that’s convenient, he shows up at her doorstep, how often does that happen? And I’m like, but he didn’t just show up at her doorstep. He saw her out in the world, and she was active, she wasn’t just hoping someone would show up at the door.
I think it’s important to show the universe what your intention is. If you want a partner, you do need to take actions to show that. But I don’t think it helps to stress that much, either. I love asking people how they met their partner. I’ve never had anyone say, “I worried about it a lot; I stressed out.”
What do they say?
They meet through friends of friends, they’re coworkers, they go on a date and aren’t expecting it to lead to anything. Organic stuff. Online dating can be organic. I almost feel like in the 21st century if you’re single and don’t want to be you owe it to yourself to have at least one profile up somewhere. It’s a bad Sex and the City reference — you’ve got to have a light on in the cab — you’ve got to have a light on on the internet.
What other contemporary dating themes does the book address?
Self-confidence and self-acceptance, and — I don’t know what the one-word approach to this is, but that it’s OK. One thing that sets this apart from other parodies is that it’s funny, yes, but it’s also meant to do for adult women what kid’s books do for children: provide comfort, reassurance, and the moral of the story message. And empathy, too. Everybody knows these guys. It’s not a male-bashing book, it’s a female empowerment book, but we’ve all dated these guys and dealt with these common themes of unavailability and people who can’t give us what we need. What’s the best way to handle that?
For our main character, it’s going through the world, coming into contact with a lot of guys, realizing a lot of them aren’t right for her, but knowing that’s OK.
There’s no time when they say, “No, I’m not your boyfriend,” and she says “Are you sure? We should give it a try!” I once had someone say, “I like you, but I’m not sure I have the time for this right now.” What I heard was “he likes me,” and I thought, we’ll make it work. I found myself getting resentful. But he’d told me initially he didn’t have time.
Sometimes we think we can make it work despite what’s right in front of us. But I also think we all eventually realize that just being liked is not all that’s necessary for a good relationship.
I think we can move that bar. I think we can presume that someone likes us. Who wouldn’t like us???
If you like yourself, of course others will like you, and if they don’t, why do you want anything to do with them on a personal level? I have these “flirt cards” you can download from the website, and there’s a version for guys too. It takes more confidence than you think to pass those out. You have to be brave enough to say, “I deserve your interest.” But we all deserve that! I remember once reading about Jen Aniston ascribing her own lovableness to Brad Pitt loving her so much. I remember thinking, oh good, it CAN work without loving yourself first. But while it would be convenient to collapse in someone else’s arms and have them do all the work, it really comes down to being happy whether or not someone else is in your life. [Finding her soulmate] is the character’s quest in the book, but if she went home without completing it, it was going to be OK. It would still be a good ending if she had a plate of cookies and a great book at the end.
Did you think of ending it that way?
I knew she was going to meet someone. I knew it was going to have that rundown. I wanted it to mirror the rundown of Are You My Mother? I had no idea how it was going to end, though. It sounds so cheesy, but as I was typing it, I was kind of smiling, thinking, this is how it ends? That’s great! And then I typed, “and you are not my boyfriend.” It’s kind of a corny twist, but it gives me little chills every time, it makes me so happy. It’s a picture book, it has to have a happy ending!
What kind of response are you getting to it so far?
A lot of people find it a lot funnier than I did. I definitely think it’s funny. But Marie Claire put up an Instagram shot of it, and it immediately got 2,400 likes, and comments like “hilarious” and “LOL.” To me it’s so earnest, this sincere little story.
That’s probably a reaction to the cover and what it evokes, the comparison to Are You My Mother?
Definitely. And I’ve gotten a lot of, how did you know? How did you sneak into my 20s, who told you my life? That’s one of the most exciting things. I had a hunch we were all in this together, we weren’t having these unique experiences, but it’s been nice. If you’ve dated any spectrum of people, you’ve probably encountered at least one of these guys.
One thing I’m excited to tell people is that there are so many secrets in the illustrations, so many clues you can figure out.
Like what? Do you have a favorite?
There are so many! My favorite is something that Simon, the illustrator, added. In the early spreads when she’s getting her invitation to a wedding and wondering where her boyfriend is, she’s out of milk, and when her neighbor brings her milk at the end, he didn’t even know she was out of milk. It’s subtle. A more popular thing is to notice her friend partying and then the next day doing a walk of shame. No judgment on her, she could be walking home from the man she’s going to marry … not that she has to marry him!
How does marriage play into the book?
I don’t think marrying is a destination or goal, that’s why she doesn’t say “you’re not my husband.” The book is really just about taking care of yourself and not stressing about dating. There’s this stigma that if you’re single and don’t want to be, you’d better stress about it. Of course, you could be getting in your own way. You have to be taking care of yourself. It’s hard to love yourself if you’re not taking care of yourself.
There was a recent piece in The New York Times about the “trend” of picture books for grownups, mentioning your book and others. How do you feel about being included in that group?
What matters to me is that this book is really genuine, and I really believe it will help women feel better about a common situation we’re often taught to feel badly about. If this trend will help Are You My Boyfriend? get visibility and credibility, I’m all for it! Goodnight iPad, for instance, is adorable. It’s really spot-on, it serves a purpose. I’m not as onboard with Go the Fuck to Sleep, because it feels kind of mean-spirited, or maybe it’s just funnier for parents. I’m OK with Are You My Boyfriend? being included in that cohort because it helps people find out it exists. Maybe they discover that in addition to it being a fun, cute thing, when they actually read it they’re going to get something more.
What is it that you most hope people get from it?
Mainly I just want to stress that we’re already OK, we’re all going through this. I’m really grateful to have the opportunity to share this story and hear other peoples’ stories and share those as well. This girl, this character, is so brave and fun, and she’s out there. I wish someone had given me this book when I graduated from college.
Previously: An Interview With Sara Eckel
Jen Doll is a regular contributor to The Hairpin.