They Say Blue: Jillian Tamaki's 2018 BGHB Picture Book Award Speech

Thank you to the Horn Book, the Boston Globe, and the awards selection committee.

This is my first picture book, and it represents a lot of struggle. I think this surprises people given that I have done many books before, but there’s something uniquely challenging about a picture book specifically aimed at young children.

The hardest thing is dispelling the notion that you’re making a Picture Book — capital P, capital B. “The Book,” in your head, is funny and brave. Simple yet complex. It probably peers into the darkness, too — briefly, because darkness is a part of Life and you respect the intelligence of children. The Book is ideally a classic, but with a modern sensibility — not stuffy — and appeals to both actual kids and their parents (who have the money), as well as to the child within the parents.

The Book in your head is neat and whole, edges crisp and clean as if punched out by a machine.

Of course, reality rudely interjects on the first day you sit down to work. With a sinking feeling, you realize The Book isn’t a book at all — it isn’t even a story. It’s an ectoplasm of idea fragments. Sadly, you are not a conduit. Your task is to fashion a device with which to contain the mess, make sense of it, and put it in an order we can recognize.

Do not freak out.

The shape is lumpy and raggedy. Chop, slice, shave. Put the ending at the beginning. Does that feel right? Does it at least feel a little right-er?

Distill and clarify. Shake off ideas of universality. Go small. Inwards. Local.

I’m always amazed at how meaning transcends specificity — of time, place, and identity. It’s no small leap of faith that you and a reader will be able to bridge that distance.

The Book you have made is a cousin to the book in your head. An echo — and less perfect, perhaps — but better because it’s real.

This is all to say: thank you to Susan Van Metre for shepherding me through that messy process; Chad Beckerman and Alison Gervais for helping materialize it; RRD Commercial and Digital Print in China, where I was lucky to have witnessed this book being printed; and Andrew Smith, Jenny Choy, and the rest of the team at Abrams Books. Thanks to my agent, Steven Malk, for being an amazing cheerleader. It’s good to remember that although my name is on the cover, a physical book is never the labor of just one person.

With my first picture book also came the brave new world of school visits. I visited DC earlier this year and was infinitely more terrified of the class of first graders than the filmed talk I did the next day at the Library of Congress. It’s a clarifying exercise to read your work to an unsympathetic audience.

Who are you? Why are you here?

If you’re speaking to teenagers: “Why am I here?

Are you boring?

In a way, it’s a more pure engagement with your story than even sitting alone in the studio. Like jumping into a cold lake and becoming acutely aware of your own body.

Why did I write this story? Why does the kid do that? What is this about?

IS this boring?

They Say Blue is about a child moving through the world, taking account. She turns over what she knows in her head and in her hands, examining it from all sides.

“They say blue is the color of the sky.” But that’s not always true, is it? Is it true today?

“White,” a boy in Denver tells me, at a reading where only three kids showed up due to a snowstorm.

“Pink, with orange at the edges,” says a girl in Brampton, Ontario, dressed in head-to-toe pink.

What have I heard others say? Why do they say that?

Does what they say match with what I see?

It has never been a better time to actively question received wisdom and our own assumptions, no matter how long we have held them. Refuse the binaries. Choose to parse the grays.

“That’s so weirdddd,” a kid, usually a boy, shouts at the part where the little girl in the book turns into a tree.

What do I know about this? What does this remind me of? What is it like to be that thing? Our senses are our tools for understanding.

What do I feel?

Emotions cannot be scrubbed from our perception of the world. And yet they are routinely dismissed, downplayed, and ignored by many in power, probably because taking them into account is very inconvenient. Across many parts of North America — including the city where I live, Toronto — basic rights like health care and housing seem to be regarded as luxuries and not fundamental to the well-being of people. The stress of an individual living under tenuous circumstances has a ripple effect across family and community. And yet the emotional element is treated as anecdotal soft-science in the context of policy making.

At the end of They Say Blue, the wandering child finds herself back in her bed. Her mother is there, and they continue to look, together now, out the window of their house. It’s a moment drawn from my own life. Many times, or maybe just once, my mom parted my 1980s Asian-kid bangs down the middle in a motion that imprinted itself on me. My mind’s eye visualized a triangle being formed on my forehead.

It’s intended as an anchoring moment. I’ll admit I was pleased at the neatness. It’s an earnest thank-you to my parents and contains the idea that wandering is best when you have a place — physical or metaphorical—to return to. But with a little distance now, I can’t shake how that is far from a guarantee for many.

So I have a last shout-out: for the public educators and librarians in the room, the guardians of some of the last truly public spaces in our communities. You are underpaid and subject to political whims. Every book I have made, including this one, was created in part within a public library. I see (and hear and occasionally smell) the beautiful and not-so-beautiful moments of the job you’ve been tasked with.

I thank you very sincerely now. For maintaining spaces dedicated to access, connection, meaning, curiosity. For providing a place from which all may wander.

From the January/February 2019 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. For more on the 2018 Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards, click on the tag BGHB18.

Jillian Tamaki

Jillian Tamaki is author-illustrator of the 2018 Boston Globe–Horn Book PIcture Book Award winner They Say Blue. The cartoonist and illustrator's most recent book is the co-created adult graphic novel Roaming (Drawn and Quarterly, 2023). Her recent picture book is Our Little Kitchen (Abrams, 2021).

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