Jillian Tamaki Talks with Roger

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Photo: Reynard Li

While Jillian Tamaki won a Caldecott Honor in 2015 for This One Summer, written by her cousin Mariko Tamaki, there is still plenty of debate over whether that graphic novel can be called a "picture book." No such arguing should attend They Say Blue, a forty-page, squarely shaped book of watercolor paintings and minimal text. As for what it's about — well, Jillian and I disagreed about that; see below.

Roger Sutton: This is your first published picture book, and I'm curious about what made you take this particular leap.

Jillian Tamaki: It's a new challenge. I like to bop around. I do freelance illustration, middle-grade books, comics for YA audiences and adults — I'm compelled to try various formats. Each one demands a different thing of you. You're talking to a different audience. I love challenging myself that way. I've actually been asked to illustrate picture books for years, but nothing that came along was quite right. I felt that I should probably write the kids' book that I want to draw, so that's how it came about — eventually sitting down and making the thing myself.

RS: Did you complete a manuscript before you did the pictures?

JT: At first I did work in words exclusively, but pretty soon I had to start drawing and sketching and writing at the same time. That's just the way I think, and the way that I've been trained. You're thumbnailing, writing, and putting the words and the space together. When I did have something to show for this book, it was already full color. That sounds more impressive than it is. It was still quite sketchy, but because the story is about color, color was indicated in the sketches. That's what got presented to my agent and the publishers.

RS: That's interesting, because the whole book has an improvisatory feeling to it. That seems to be a theme of the book as well — going from one thought to another, letting each bounce from the one before. We start with a little girl at the beach thinking about the sky and the water and the things she can't see but she knows are there, which leads her to thinking about what's inside an egg and about the blood pumping inside her and about the changing seasons…

JT: There's a thread that you follow to the end of the book, but you don't know where it's going, so it has sort of a blowing-on-the-wind vibe to it.

RS: I wonder how a writer or an artist controls that. You want it to feel like it's blowing on the wind, but if you were actually blowing on the wind, you'd drive your readers crazy.

JT: Oh, yeah. It's a bit of an illusion. It has to feel very free, but it's tightly controlled. The leaps between ideas have to be a little improbable to give that sense of unexpectedness. When your mind is just wandering, it's not necessarily going to make a logical step to the next thing.

RS: I can see changes of tempo in the book. We have this blue of the sky and the water and then, oh, look, the girl can't see it, but there's a blue whale underwater. And then bam, turn the page and we've shifted not only colors, but the way of thinking. I'm turning that page now, and it's quite a surprise: blue to orange, whale to egg yolk.

JT: What links those images is something conceptual as opposed to visual. That's another way it can be useful to sketch and write — to me it's all writing, writing in pictures. The through-line is typically in the words, and the pictures operate on a different level. I'm always interested in the space between word and picture. That's where the fun is. That's where the connection is, where readers can insert themselves into the story. That approach may come from cartooning. Typically it's not considered good cartooning if you draw a literal reflection of what somebody's saying. There needs to be a space between.

RS: We like that in picture books, too. Do illustrations and comics feel like different kinds of work?

JT: I started doing editorial illustration right away after I graduated, in 2003, as well as making indie comics. For a long time nobody knew that I did both. If you knew me from comics, you had no idea that I did illustration, and vice versa. Now there's so much cross-pollination between all these disciplines. There is more awareness and more openness to not defining yourself as one thing or another.

RS: I'm seeing that kind of openness on my side too. I was on the Caldecott committee the year it went to Hugo Cabret, and you won a Caldecott Honor for a graphic novel [This One Summer]. The award is for a picture book, so as far as the American Library Association is concerned, This One Summer is a picture book.

JT: It's funny being a cartoonist in book world. We call it book world, on the comics side.

RS: We've got you now!

JT: It's amazing to be embraced by schools and libraries. But it still can fit a little bit uncomfortably, because comics are really not illustrated books. The pictures and the words can't be separated in the way that picture-book awards typically have done in the past. I'm super-grateful, and it's very nice to have that expanded audience and meet different people, but it can be a weird disconnect.

RS: How would you define the difference between a comic, a graphic novel, and a picture book?

JT: A graphic novel I just consider a long comic. They're the same thing. This One Summer is a comic. I feel like "graphic novel" is a little bit of a respectability term. It used to be controversial within comics to call them "graphic novels," because people would say, oh, that's just a marketing term. For people who will never deign to pick up a comic, it's a "graphic novel." But I think it's useful, because people come into the encounter with a different set of experiences and expectations, and who cares as long as they pick up the book? To me those words are interchangeable. Sometimes I will be asked to do a one-page comic for a magazine, and they'll say, "We want you to do a graphic novel illustration." They won't say "comic" — they don't know that's the term, or they think they might offend me or something. You end up with these weird phrases like "graphic novel picture." It doesn't really make sense. But I feel like we all understand what a picture book is.

RS: This book is distinct in and of itself, but it's clearly within the picture book realm. This is a young book.

JT: It's quite traditional.

RS: What's that like for you? After doing sexy stuff like Skim [also written by Mariko Tamaki], the first book of yours I read.

JT: It's very new to me. It's outside of my comfort zone, but it's exciting to expand to that audience. I do some adult literacy work too, so I've become acutely aware of how useful picture books can be to audiences who are not children. It has reframed my thoughts about the kinds of stories I want to tell. I still love doing work that is trying to push the medium of comics — to speak to that canon, that history, that scene, that art form. But I'm also intrigued about the power of a simple story.

RS: Did you find that you were able to convey a particular feeling or concept or mood in this form that you hadn't been able to in graphic novels?

JT: It's an extremely difficult form, I have to say. There is a distillation, a compression that is not so necessary when you're dealing with a four-hundred-page book, and you can take the time to craft the world and expand it outward and linger and create mood and atmosphere. It's a harder trick to distill all that into a picture book. Your first inclination is to create richness. You want to say everything. But in the end, it's a process of stripping away. You're trying to ferret out the essence of the story, the core. You have to be very clear as to what you're trying to make.

RS: Did you feel clear about what you tried to make?

JT: Yes. It helped to have the simple premise of color. This is a somewhat meditative book, which might not be for everybody. It doesn't have a hard-and-fast message or a conventional story arc to it.

RS: It's interesting — you say it's a book about color, and I say it's a book about thinking.

JT: Color was the core that got me started and where I branched out from. What guides a lot of my work is: would it be fun to look at? Would it be engaging?

RS: And do you want to look at it again?

JT: Right. It almost seems silly to simplify it to that level, but in a lot of ways, that is the way I think.

RS: This book does bring you back to itself. You get to the end and you think, wait, I'm kind of where I was in the beginning, but I need to go back and see what's different.

JT: Exactly. One of the things I've learned is that you're never quite aware of what you're putting into your work. A lot of it operates on a subconscious level — what you're subconsciously preoccupied with while making the book. I only realized afterward that home is what roots this little girl, what makes her free to go roam. That stability is essential to the story.

RS: It's also neat the way you come close to the end and "Surprise! I'm a bedtime book, too!"

JT: But then at the very end we're about to get up. A whole other thing about creating a picture book is that you then get to read it aloud with children in real time. It's fun to go though the book's little swerves and leaps and dips and bobs alongside them.

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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978.

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