Katie Yamasaki Talks with Roger

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In Katie Yamasaki’s latest picture book (co-written with Ian Lendler), Naomi’s home on 11th Street is changing, but as friends move and buildings come down, she sees her community — Everything Naomi Loved (Norton) — commemorated in art by Mister Ray, the old man who owns the automotive shop. When he moves, too, it is Naomi’s turn to wield the brush.

Roger Sutton: I was looking at your website and thinking, oh, she does murals, she does picture books. How different. And then I thought, no, how much the same. And now you have a picture book that is about murals. What got you from one to the other?

Katie Yamasaki: I originally wanted to become an artist to illustrate children’s books! My aunt Carol is best friends with author/illustrator Ed Young — they studied tai chi together in the 1960s. When I was an undergraduate, he needed someone to archive his work. At that time, in the 1990s, it was eighty-something books. So I went and stayed with him and his family and went through all of his books. I’d just started studying art, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it. But the way he told stories, how he re-told folktales and stories from China, really appealed to me. I was also interested in working with children, so I targeted my art toward picture books. But when I graduated — I did the MFA illustration as visual essay program at the School of Visual Arts after teaching in the public schools for a couple years — I wasn’t able to sell any books. I had an agent, and I thought it would be great, but it took a really long time for me to sell a book. My work wasn’t really ready. In the meantime, my friend’s mom was a public school librarian at South Orange Middle School in New Jersey, and she asked me to paint a mural in her library. I was never somebody who wanted to be stuck in the studio all the time — I really wanted to be out in the world — and I loved interacting with the librarians, students, administrators, teachers. The mural felt like a different way to tell a story, and the physical aspect of it really appealed to me — the climbing, scaffolding, scale. In the end, I went back to teaching, and I taught for about fourteen years altogether. Being around kids helped my murals and my books. The work balances out — the physical nature of the murals and the constant conversation; and then to be in the studio and be quiet and have more inward time to focus on the book — they feel really complementary to me.

RS: At such very different scales.

KY: With murals, I’m telling the story of a community, and that community is engaged in developing the content, figuring out the “voice” of the piece. Those are the types of projects that I do, very participatory. I had an idea to do a mural project with incarcerated women or women at a homeless shelter, then create a book about it. At the time, people said, “that’s too sad,” or “that’s not what kids want to read.” Now it feels like in publishing there’s a little bit more room for that type of thing — in my next book with Norton, the main character is a father who’s formerly incarcerated. He works at a bakery, and the story is about him reconnecting with his daughter. It’s not a sad story! It is sad to have a parent who is incarcerated. It is sad to be displaced from your community, etc. There can be terrifically sad circumstances, sad components of a story without it being a sad story. So many kids’ lives are reflected in that type of story.

RS: We’ve had picture books about parents in jail before, but at least when I was working as a children’s librarian (which was a long time ago now) they were designed as bibliotherapy. “Oh, your dad’s in jail? You should read this book.” We don’t think that way anymore in children’s books. Your dad doesn’t have to be in jail for you to be seen as a reader of that book.

KY: I appreciate that there’s such an opening for those stories right now in picture books.

RS: Hallelujah. As an artist, how do you reconcile the idea that a mural is the essence of public art while a picture book is a much more private experience? But in both cases, you’re urgently concerned with communication.

KY: Even in public art, you’re concerned with the individual private viewer’s experience with the piece. The beauty of painting a mural — so much of it is the practice, where you have these moments of engagement with the people you’re working with and people passing by. It gets people off their phones and out of the rhythm of their daily lives. With picture books you’re trying to create relatable characters for the reader to connect with — with a mural, you’re doing just the same thing.

RS: How do you think that connection is different in a picture book?

KY: A mural is a single image, and — especially if you’re a kid — you don’t necessarily have control over how much time you get to spend with it. With a book, there’s an intimacy to your alone time. But the idea of encountering art in your everyday world is really the same, or similar.

RS: That’s true, if you’re surrounded by books. It seems like your creation process also mimics the difference in how the art is received. You create a picture book essentially by yourself, right? You’re alone in your studio, and no one is making smart remarks as they walk by.

KY: Yes, and without that constant feedback, you can commune differently with the imagery. There’s more time to look at each piece and see how it relates to the next. Right now I have nineteen paintings on my wall that are just about finished! A mural can be completely covered in scaffolding — it feels totally different to your body. The actual drawing of the design is similar, but the design process with murals is participatory and it can take weeks or months of workshopping with different groups of people. With a book, it’s more like the story that I get to choose.

RS: As a picture-book maker, I would think you’re also more in control because you have page-turns. So you’re deciding on a pace for that story.

KY: There’s a lot more control. That’s a good word.

RS: Do you enjoy that kind of community collaboration with creating a picture book?

KY: Oh, yeah, I love it. I love collaborating. I love working with an editor. There are so many people who are good at this and can just help — it’s whatever’s in the best interest of the story, so they can help you. When I’m doing murals, a lot of the time I’m not really working with creative professional peers, I’m working with kids or teenagers or incarcerated people, people who don’t have art backgrounds. When I do books, I get to collaborate with amazing art directors and editors who really help get at the essence of the story. There’s so much wisdom — I feel very lucky to be working with Simon [Boughton, publishing director of Norton Young Readers].

RS: He knows a lot.

KY: And he understands what I’m trying to do. I got my master’s degree in 2003, which was a long time ago. You miss that kind of community feeling, people giving you feedback and understanding your work. I love that part.

RS: I love knowing anything I write is going to be seen by people I respect before it gets published.

KY: Absolutely. Other people see different things in your work. Librarians especially can be so incredibly helpful to me.

RS: Do you know Vera Williams’s work? Everything Naomi Loved reminds me of her.

KY: I love her! Thank you. That’s a huge compliment.

RS: The warmth is there, and the themes are there — the importance of community. She was saying that when nobody else was.

KY: I grew up with books like that. My parents were back-to-the-land hippies. My mom was a kindergarten teacher, and we grew up in a community where we had dinner together every week, and the kids roamed freely between many houses. With this book, part of what I’m really hoping to communicate is when things are hard, and when kids — or any of us — go through a change that’s painful or that brings up big feelings, that community is one of the most important things to help find our way through. And creativity, too — having some kind of creative outlet, whether it’s writing, singing, drawing, painting. It’s such a bizarre time, and a lot of kids are going through really hard things. I hope the book will feel like some kind of comfort to them, that they’ll be able to find their community and their creativity. I taught fourth- through eighth-grade art for all those years, and I remember how the feeling of the room would change when they’d get their hands on paint or oil pastels. It was relaxing, a break from the tumult of adolescence. I did this five-month series of workshops with incarcerated moms, and one of the moms, after a certain amount of time, said, “I forgot for a while that I was in jail.” Just the act of having the materials in her hand and getting color down on paper. With the murals in the book — I definitely feel a little bit old-fashioned because a lot of artists I know are mostly working digitally, and it seems like a lot of kids’ books are done digitally, but I wonder how good that feels.

RS: I would imagine what a person can do with a paintbrush in their hand is very different from what I do with, say, a finger on my iPad, making a doodle or something, where you’re aware of its impermanence. Cut, paste, remove that last thing. Whereas you always have to deal with what you make before you add the next stroke.

KY: I don’t think I would make picture books if it was a digital form. I love having all the pages in a book, all of the opportunities to tell different parts of a story and explore the characters. With a mural — I’m thinking of one I designed right next to the BQE and Third Avenue in New York City — there’s high-speed traffic, buses, pedestrians, so you have to design it for people who would see it in a flash, people who would see it walking by, people who would see it stuck in traffic. It’s a different design challenge. I like that in a book you can manage things more deliberately.

RS: In a sense, you’re saying “look here,” turn the page, “now look here.” You don’t have that in a mural.

KY: Exactly.

RS: I think of a mural I used to see coming back from the subway, which has since been painted over. It was a woman playing basketball, and then as you walked past, you saw that it was painted on a corner, and around the corner was another woman in a business suit, winking at her. They were like my friends, because I saw them every day.

KY: Right, it really becomes part of your landscape, the landscape of the community. It’s funny that murals, like books, get lumped into one category, because there’s such a variety. I’ll get asked to paint a mural that’s very political, or to paint a mermaid on a child’s bedroom wall, or to paint a sign for a fish market. It’s so broad. But I think what I’m doing with the books and with the murals is pretty similar. With murals, you sometimes have a freedom that you don’t with books — no art director or publisher, and there might be zero dollars behind it — so you can really just do whatever you want if somebody gives you the wall. That can be pretty freeing.


Sponsored by
Norton Young Readers, an imprint of W. W. Norton & Company

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