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Dan Santat on his graphic memoir 'A First Time For Everything'

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

One summer when Dan Santat was 13, he left his sleepy California town and went on a class trip to Europe.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CA POURRAIT CHANGER")

BRIGITTE BARDOT: (Singing in French).

KHALID: It ended up being exactly what his awkward, anxious teenage self needed. Dan Santat and his classmates spent weeks trekking through five countries. They experienced new places, people, languages, food and, for some, even a little romance. Several decades later, Santat detailed that adventure in his graphic memoir called "A First Time For Everything." It's won him this year's National Book Award for Young People's Literature. And earlier this year, Dan Santat spoke with NPR's Eyder Peralta about his book and the trip that inspired it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: So, Dan, what were you like before this trip? I mean, what kind of eighth-grader were you?

DAN SANTAT: You know, I would say I was pretty outgoing. I was a pretty friendly kid. I always liked strumming up conversations with other kids and being friendly. And then somewhere around middle school, it just felt like kids had an edge to them. It almost felt as if my childhood was kind of being forcefully taken because there was this idea of being a man and saying, grow up. You've got to toughen up. You've got to be a certain way. I think I adapted to it pretty well. But it, of course, came with its hiccups.

PERALTA: So this trip changes things for you. Of the many experiences that you had, what was your favorite and why?

SANTAT: One of my personal favorites is the time I snuck into Wimbledon. You have to understand, in the 1980s, kids were just set free to do whatever they wanted. The tour group would just say, OK, kids, go have fun in Paris. Go have fun in Switzerland. Go have fun in London. That was just - it was just normal back in the day, and I wanted to go to Wimbledon. I thought, well, this is a great opportunity. The tournament's going on. And so I hopped onto the London Underground with a friend, and I remember getting to Wimbledon and just standing in front of this cute neighborhood thinking, where's the tennis? I was a little panicked. I said, this isn't - I thought it was just going to drop me in front of the tennis match.

And so I'm just wandering the streets for, like, an hour, and it's raining intermittently on and off. And then I finally find Wimbledon. And then when I get to the gates, you know, there's an official that says, oh, we'll be letting people in for 3 pounds after 5 p.m., and that was like 15 minutes away. I paid my 3 pounds, walked on the grounds and again, like I said, it was raining, so I thought, well, maybe I can go see Centre Court.

And I sat down, and then slowly, they're removing the rain tarp. The sideline officials are coming out. They're squeegeeing off the grass. The chair umpire comes out. And then John McEnroe and Stefan Edberg come out to finish the third set of the 1989 Men's Semifinal, and I got to watch it for 3 pounds, and it was probably the most "Forrest Gump" kind of experience anybody could ever have. And I treasure that fully.

PERALTA: There were also other experiences. So I'm guessing closing your eyes, kissing Amy, the girl you had a crush on, then kissing her accidentally in the ear was not one of your favorite experiences.

SANTAT: Yeah. So I took some liberties with the experience. In the book, I drop a piece of bread into the fondue pot, and I guess the tradition was that you were supposed to kiss the person next to you when you do that. Amy was sitting next to me, and I'm getting heckled by these really popular girls from my school who were like, do it, do it, do it. And in this particular case, Amy agrees. She says, OK, just to get the girls off your back, you can kiss me on the cheek. I close my eyes, and I pucker up, and I end up kissing her on the ear, which is, you know, the most awkward first kiss ever.

Now, truthfully, what actually happened in real life was I was on a bus to Salzburg, and she was sitting next to me. And at this point, we had already expressed our feelings for one another. And, of course, those same girls were, you know, sitting right behind me. And they're whispering into my ear, just - oh, just give her a peck on the cheek. Ask if you can kiss her. Just, you know, whisper to her. And I remember leaning over to Amy and saying, can I kiss you? She was really sheepishly, like, grinning and just nodding, like, yeah. Yeah. Go ahead.

And then we go into a tunnel and it's dark for, like, 10, 15 seconds. I'm just navigating in the dark, you know, just with my lips, just trying to find something. And then when the bus comes out of the tunnel, I see her with her eyes fully dilated and her hand against her ear looking at me. And, of course, the girls in the back - they just shout out, did you just kiss her on the ear? And then there's just a rupture of laughter that just fills the entire bus, and I was mortified. And I didn't try kissing Amy again for, like, another, like, two weeks. I was so embarrassed.

PERALTA: So Dan, you primarily write for children and a young adult audience. Do you think there are significant differences between what you experienced back when you were in middle school - the situations, emotions and pressures that we see play out in this memoir - and what middle schoolers are going through today, what your kids are going through today?

SANTAT: What you tend to see is that adolescence is a cycle, you know? You go through these rigors of being a teenager, and then as your kids are growing up, you actually see them going through those same pressures, right? It's just - the only difference is that the clothes are different and, you know, music has changed. But for the most part, it's just a revolving circle of repeating events. I think sometimes as adults, we kind of do a disservice by assuring them that parents are flawless and that we can take care of anything. And now, you know, with my boys, after telling them all the events of this memoir, we're actually much, much tighter than ever, and they're more open to telling me all kinds of things, mainly because I've shown them that I've been fallible, that I've made mistakes that they've made. And as a result, I think they feel - you know, there's this saying where they say, well, I'm not supposed to be your friend. I'm your parent, you know? And I think there is a way to be both.

PERALTA: This level of freedom that you describe in this memoir allows you to learn so much about yourself. But at the end of the book, you add a note saying that maybe kids shouldn't have this kind of freedom. I don't know - you know, drinking beer at 13 or stealing bikes.

SANTAT: (Laughter).

PERALTA: But you turned out OK, right?

SANTAT: Right. Right. I mean, you know, I think any Gen Xer that grew up knows that you went to a birthday party, and then, in the middle of the night, you snuck down to the TV to watch HBO, you know, something maybe you shouldn't have watched, like, you know, "Halloween 4," or - you know, or something, right? We don't want to talk about those things, but we did some pretty shady things. But there is something to be gained from living life to its fullest. And I think that's something that's important for all kids to have and experience.

PERALTA: Wow. So last question, the most important one. You drank a lot of Fanta on this trip.

SANTAT: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.

PERALTA: (Laughter) Do you still drink a lot of Fanta, and do you have a favorite flavor?

SANTAT: I was actually recently in Singapore, and they had this lychee Fanta which I was really enamored by, so I can safely say that I think I've had every flavor of Fanta. But as someone who's very nostalgic and just loves the classics, I always go back to my favorite, which is orange, which was my first. And you never forget your first.

PERALTA: (Laughter). Dan Santat, author of the new graphic memoir, "A First Time for Everything." Thank you, Dan.

SANTAT: Thank you very much.

KHALID: That was NPR's Eyder Peralta from this past February. Dan Santat's book won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature just a few weeks ago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.

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