The Student News Site of University of Kentucky

Kentucky Kernel

The Student News Site of University of Kentucky

Kentucky Kernel

The Student News Site of University of Kentucky

Kentucky Kernel

Follow us on Instagram

Art is the love of Rachel Elliott’s life

LGBTQ+ books pulled from schools in Kentucky now back on shelves; author thanks those who stood up for books
Author-Illustrator Rachel Elliot sits in front of the graphic novel section of the Lucille Caudill Little Fine Arts Library on Tuesday, April 9, 2024, at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Christian Kantosky | Staff

Rachel Elliott’s love for illustration began in the countryside of Oklahoma next to a strawberry field, where she began lessons at a family friend’s home in the third grade.

Elliott, an author-illustrator, cartoonist and instructor in the University of Kentucky’s Department of Writing, Rhetoric and Digital Studies (WRD), said that although her favorite times as a young girl were when she was drawing, she didn’t then understand her passion could lead to a career.

“When you get older you realize that there are such things as artists,” Elliott said. “… When there is something that you love so much that you don’t ever want it to go out of your life, you kind of have to try and pursue it as a career.” 

She began her journey to pursue illustration by majoring in fine art at Truman State University, then called Northeast Missouri State University.

Elliott, who said she learned to read by viewing the comic strips in “Peanuts” books, recalled making a comic version of her answer to the admission essay question instead of a traditional written essay, which led to an acceptance into the university.

Her time spent at Truman made her fall in love with art theory and painting. While in school, Elliott said she knew how much she enjoyed reading comics but didn’t know what her place was in creating them and wouldn’t know until 2014 when she saw a surge in children’s comic books.

In 2022, Elliott published her first book, “The Real Riley Mayes.” The graphic novel follows a fifth-grade girl who is a massive fan of a TV comedian named Joy Powers and embraces themes of friendship and identity. 

“The Real Riley Mayes” was honored by Stonewall Book Awards in 2023 for its LGBTQ+ representation, as the graphic novel is dedicated to the exploration of oneself and figuring out different parts of oneself, Elliott said. The awards and honors are presented by the American Library Association’s Rainbow Round Table. 

Elliott said that there have been challenges after publishing “The Real Riley Mayes,” as school districts in numerous states called for the removal of certain books in libraries that depict LGBTQ+ characters and themes as well as educate readers about sexuality. This included Elliott’s book.

“The Real Riley Mayes” was removed from three different libraries that Elliott knows of, she said, which includes Samuels Public Library in Front Royal, Virginia, Columbia County Library in Georgia and libraries in Boyle County public schools here in Kentucky.

“Those books (Elliott’s and others) got put back on the shelf which was awesome. Even with these challenges, it has been really heartwarming to see people that I don’t know step up for not just my book but hundreds of other books,” Elliott said.

As she grew up queer in the 1980s and ‘90s in rural Oklahoma, Elliott said that, due to certain laws, it was uncommon for people to talk about gay individuals out loud.

“It was pre-internet, so if you had questions about those type of things, it was hard to know if there was anybody to ask,” Elliott said, which is different from her character’s experience in her graphic novel. “Even though Riley from the book is living in a different time, there is a chapter where she types in questions on the internet.” 

While Elliott couldn’t ask the internet questions like Riley Mayes, she and her character shared the same feelings, which is why this is represented in a chapter of Elliott’s graphic novel, she said.

Currently teaching a comics writing class in the WRD department, Elliott said she is very passionate about being a professor.

In the class, “there are some folks that have read comics off and on their whole life and some students just need to get their core done and by the time were halfway through class, everybody is working on a project that they love that has something to do with their own lives that is important to them,” Elliott said.

Her goal for the future is to write more books, and she’s currently working on a mystery story. Elliott said she has more ideas for future books that depict LGBTQ+ representation.

“I think I’m someone that has movies in my head and comics and graphic novels are a way you can get those out,” Elliott said.

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All Kentucky Kernel Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *