Sometimes, you get stuck at a crossroads between two things you really love doing. For me, it’s being an illustrator and a musician. Years ago, I thought that I’d eventually have to drop one to wholeheartedly pursue the other. I was never able to decide what I loved more, because although different in myriad ways, my love for playing/creating music and my love for creating art are completely equal in nature.
Jillian Tamaki is a bit of a kindred spirit in this sense, although hers is a tug-of-war between illustration and cartooning. She’s been able to integrate both of these passions into an impressive creative career, having released two graphic novels with her cousin Mariko Tamaki and two books of personal work on her own–not to mention the plethora of illustration awards she’s achieved. Her ever-growing client list includes the likes of The New York Times, National Geographic, Penguin Books, The New Yorker, and WIRED.
Jillian grew up in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and went on to study illustration at the Alberta College of Art & Design. While she originally intended to focus on design, she fell in love with illustration and began freelancing after a brief stint at Bioware, a Canada-based video game company. She works both digitally and physically, showcasing her general badass brushwork and drafting skills in addition to embroidery (!!!).
Her creative process is impressively flexible, shifting between rapid-fire deadlines and long-term projects.
This One Summer and Skim, while not necessarily limited to the teen reading section, exemplify the Tamaki cousins’ wish to expose more nuanced examples of teenage girls in literature (“not-slim, would-be Wiccan goth”) and graphic novels/comics. They don’t shy away from the heavy stuff–sexual identity, suicide, being a general loner. And perhaps there’s no better way to tell the stories of these painful experiences than through Jillian Tamaki’s gorgeous, expressive linework. Skim went on to win The New York Times’ award for Best Illustrated Children’s Book of 2008.
Jillian’s exuberant, sarcastic personality is only complemented by her genuine desire to help others, especially in the creative community. She’s provided a wealth of advice on her website in the FAQ section, and also welcomes questions on her blog.
You can follow along with her at her website, Twitter, blog, and Tumblr. She also runs a webcomic at Mutant Magic, which will soon be published by Drawn & Quarterly in 2015. Jillian also teaches illustration at School of Visual Arts.
School finally ended. I took a week off to empty my brain of all things MICA and am now ready to wrap up this book. My plan was to finish et the end of the semester, but like a few of my students, I fell shy of my original goal by about three pieces. Those that follow me on facebook know how excited I get about my students and their work. My Advanced Book Illustration class ended with a bang with their end of semester reading to students at the Enoch Pratt Library. What a treat! You can see a few pics from that day on the MICA blog.
Since school ended, I read Matthew David Olshan’s “Marshlands“, an allegory of the excesses of empire. I liked the story and felt that Matthew did a wonderful job of painting the portrait of life in the desert marshes. I did feel that there was an emotional distance from some of the horrible punishments inflicted upon the inhabitants of the land. Some of the described tortures hit hard, but there was still a calmness in the reporting. I wondered after I read it, if that was the reason I was able to read it so quickly. I never needed any distance from the story, and with the backward story structure, my interest was held throughout.
The structure was a little disorienting at first. While reading it, I was lost and knew that the experience of reading it would be akin to assembling a jigsaw puzzle…which bothered me a little at first, but again, the visuals of the story wer
e so rich that it stayed with me. I do enjoy stories that make you wait for answers later. I don’t enjoy being spoon fed details from beginning to end.
I am now finishing “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz. It is mesmerizing, but pretty taxing. In contrast to Olshan’s calm and matter-of-fact telling of Marshlands, Diaz’s storytelling is full of colorful language, historical footnotes (still told in a conversational tone) and current cultural references that crack me up, but also wear me out. It’s a sad sad story of one Dominican family and how they came to continue their lineage in the US showing us what it meant to live in the time of Trujillo and how long-lasting and far-reaching his dictatorship was. Diaz intersperses the story with Spanish phrases (that make me wish I paid more attention in Spanish during high school). Fortunately, my Spanish is decent enough that I can keep up without having to translate too much, and most of the phrases are easily understood in the context.
Next up, I will read “This One Summer” by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki. I plan to digest some NK Jemisin and Danzy Senna on the recommendation of Deb Taylor. I also want to reread “The Summer Prince”, another story that had me disoriented at the beginning, but which I fell in love with completely by the end.
As for my own books, well, I am finishing one project and then beginning another, both written by other authors. After that I will begin work on my first story where I am author and illustrator. This summer, alongside my making and reading, I will write as well. No ideas are bursting forth at the moment, but my mind is too focused on current projects to allow any other story ideas to bubble up. I am sure that once I finish this book, my mind will relax a bit.
Oh! I do plan to get out and about in July. I will head to Maine with my mom and Deb Taylor to visit Ashley Bryan and The Ashley Bryan Center in the first week of July and after that, I will head to Seoul to visit with Taeeun and work on sketches for the next book. So, big plans ahead.
What are you reading this summer?
As Summer 2014 starts to break onto the horizon, one of the first big launches of the year sees Mariko and Jillian Tamaki working together for a new graphic novel, This One Summer, published this week through First Second.
A story of two girls, Rose and Windy, This One Summer is a tale of growing maturity, of dealing with the oncoming threat (or pride) of adulthood. It’s also a gorgeous, lush piece of work, with the creative team completely in-sync as they go about creating a memorable, surprising holiday experience for the two characters.
To find out more about the book – which I’m purposely not explaining to you in too much detail because I don’t want to spoil anything – I spoke to Mariko, who writes, and Jillian, who pencils; about the book what it’s like to work together, and how This One Summer came about.
Steve: What made you want to tell this specific story? What was it about the idea, or characters, which really struck you as something you wanted to explore?
Mariko: I’ve always wanted to do a summer story. Plus the cottage is such an interesting space. It’s not home, but you’re with your family. It’s your vacation spot but it’s someone else’s every day. The rules are totally different because you’re not at school. Even the landscape, you know? With the trees and the lake and the stars and everything. It’s a little magic.
Steve: This marks, I believe your first work published through First Second. How did they come to be involved with the project?
Jillian: I’ve actually been in informal contact with Mark since around 2004. Before First Second even had a name or before we had published Skim or I’d moved to New York. He had seen some of the illustrations that I had done for the New York Times Op-Ed––some of my first jobs ever after graduating art college––and thought my work seemed suited for comics. I was only making minis during that time.
During one of my trips to New York to visit my boyfriend (who was attending SVA), we met for lunch and had been in touch on-and-off since that time.
Steve: When you first start work on a new project, do you find that you start off focusing on the story, or focusing on characters, or both?
Mariko: For me it starts with character. I do a lot of writing (random stuff) to figure out who the characters are before I get started on a script. I write a lot of letters and just stream of conscious poems and whatnot to figure out what the characters think of each other, what they’re afraid of, stuff like that. I think it’s essential to understand who you’re writing. If you understand your character, you understand what they will do when your plot happens.
Steve: The story follows two girls, Rose and Windy, two childhood friends whose families go on holiday together every summer. It would be tempting to assume that elements of the story draw off some of your own experiences growing up…. would that be fair, though? Does the story draw on any elements of autobiography for either of you?
Mariko: I went to a cottage a lot like this one, but the characters in this book are very different than the people that populated my summers as a kid. I really tried to pull in a diversity of kids and adults and situations to tell this story, a lot of which were more inspired by people I’ve met as an adult than the people I knew when I was a kid. It’s a lot easier to observe kids as an adult than it was as a kid.
Jillian: I didn’t grow up going to the cottage. My family didn’t live near Mariko’s; we were on the other side of Canada where we don’t really have that type of thing. What I was more pulling from was the emotional landscape. We took a fact-finding/reference-gathering trip to Muskoka, the area depicted in the book, before we started and that was the most influential thing, because I wanted the book to be very sensory.
Steve: The two girls feel like fully-realized teenagers of the moment, and their dialogue feels contemporary and authentic. How do you get into the minds of the characters, and put words in their mouths? Can it be difficult sometimes to write younger characters?
Mariko: I do a lot of teaching in high schools and I check in (aka eavesdrop) on kids all the time. I think the thing is less to try and write/talk like a young person, and more to try and remember where that character is in his/her life. In a way the adults can be harder to write, especially in this case, because their words are so much more thought out and calculated.
Jillian: My job is to support the dialogue, and add depth to what is being said. There’s actually quite a bit of latitude there because obviously a word or sentence can have infinite meanings depending on the timing, body language, expression, etc. Thankfully, Mariko is not too precious about the words; I can skew them different ways and she’s cool with it. She is an excellent collaborator.
Steve: Tonally, how did you approach the story, both in the writing and pencilling? Despite the young lead characters, you address a number of more adult issues and concerns with a real streak of honesty.
Jillian: Well, thanks. That’s a real compliment and something we hope to achieve. Neither of us, for better or worse, approaches a story with a particular demographic in mind. Mariko has a knack for pinpointing social zeitgeists, I think.
There are three distinct groups of people in the story: the two little kids, the townie teens, and the adult parents. To return to your question, I didn’t try to worry so much about “will a kid get some of this adult stuff?” I think a reader will interpret the three groups differently depending on his or her age– hopefully it creates a textured experience.
Steve: This One Summer feels like an exploration on adulthood or coming of age – with one girl pushing away from adulthood and the other moving towards it, and both looking at their parents from new perspectives. Would you say that the nature of “adulthood” is perhaps one of the core themes and interests of this story?
Mariko: I think this book is about adulthood but from the perspective of kids. I’ve started describing the book as anthropological research of adulthood conducted by kids. Which makes sense, because adults have such a huge impact on kids. You’re basically at the mercy of the adults around you when you’re young. Also you’re fully aware you’re supposed to BE an adult at some point, which makes them worthy of study.
Jillian: Adolescence is the time when you stop taking everything at face value, including your own parents.
Steve: How do you plan out the structure of a long-form work like this? Do you work on specific scenes you want to hit at certain points in the story, and then work backwards and forwards from them, or do you write in a relatively chronological style?
Mariko: Typically I start with the characters and I have a sense of the main turning points going into it, then I just try to work it day by day.
Jillian: Mariko and I edited a lot during the sketch phase. Much more than Skim.
Steve: Jillian, I believe you’ve said in prior interviews that you chose to have your art reflect the style of vintage manga. What motivated that decision? What do you think the style brings to this story?
Jillian: No, the art style does not reflect manga. Just the purple-y tone of the ink, which seemed to be prevalent in manga from the 60s – but I chose it because I thought it’d feel warm and unusual (and cool). I don’t consider manga a huge influence on my work (but there is some Miyazaki in there). The drawing in This One Summer is pretty workhorse-y in that I can capture a degree of realism, which was important to the story, but it’s also fast. I would not want to do a 360 page book in a put-on style!
Steve: At what point do you start storyboarding or pencilling the story? Does it tend to happen as the story is being written – allowing for moments where you decide to space out a scene or beat, and so on – or do you finish the script and only then start pencilling?
Jillian: Mariko scripts, then I sketch the thing out, and we went back and forth a lot. The story changed a bit after the sketches. But I don’t add a ton more than what’s in there. The constraint is fun.
Steve: How do you both find the creative process with one another, in general? Do you think being family makes it easier to work together and compromise when you disagree – or can it actually, at times, make it harder to create?
Mariko: I’m not sure if we have a familial connection to these kinds of stories. We do seem to have a similar sensibility around character and story. Maybe it comes from having similar dads.
Jillian: Mariko is a great collaborator, like I said. Not sure it has anything to do with being family.
What else do you have coming up, following the release of This One Summer? Do you have any future plans to work together again?
Mariko: At the moment I’m editing my next YA book (fiction, not a comic) and prepping a few new projects.
Jillian: Probably a collection of my webcomic, SuperMutant Magic Academy. Another not-announced mini-project. My Adventure Time episodes will come out! Illustration stuff.
As for working together: maybe!
Many thanks to Mariko and Jillian for their time. Thanks also to Gina Gagliano for arranging the interview. You can find Mariko on twitter here, and Jillian here. This One Summer was published yesterday, and should be available at bookstores and comic stores near you.
Due to the sheer proliferation of book jackets featuring photographs rather than illustrations, I think the time is right to offer a little ode of praise to our brave illustrators who work so hard to give us great illustrated chapter book covers. In an age when it feels like all the teen covers are dedicated to giving us variations on the same theme, it’s refreshing to consider that some artists do more than just Photoshop a girl’s dress from pink to blue.
That said, sometimes it’s hard to tell who the cover artist is on an individual book. A lot of galleys and advanced readers copies may refuse to mention the jacket artist’s name, perhaps because they are reserving the right to choose a different cover at any time. As for the artists themselves, they’re not usually all that prompt with their online portfolios. With that in mind, these are the only artists I could think of off the top of my head that are doing more than one chapter book cover in the year 2010. If you can think of someone I’ve missed (or can identify another 2010 cover that is by an artist listed here) please let me know and I’ll add them as time permits.
Here’s a guy that sneaks up on you. You don’t notice him for a while and then BLAMMO! The dude seems to be everywhere. This year Altmann’s been impressing youngsters with …
The Smoky Corridor by Chris Grabenstein:
The Death Defying Pepper Roux by Geraldine McCaughrean:
The Shadow Hunt by Katherine Langrish:
The Ring of Five by Eoin McNamee:
On the other side of the pond Altmann gets his own fair share of work. I was pleased as punch, for example, to see that they had reissued Astrid Lindgren’s Ronia the Robber’s Daughter over there this year.
Not that I don’t still love the original Trina Schart Hyman illustrations from over here.
While fellow artist Brandon Dorman does the Fablehaven books in the States, Altmann is doing them in the UK. He’s also doing the Charlie Bone series over there as well. All the more interesting that he didn’t do the UK versi
The morning began with Michael Cart giving an overview of some of the important social and political events related to LGBTQ issues. Next, Cart and Christine Jenkins presenting a list of all of the books with LGBTQ content from 1969 to 2010. They booktalked many of these, highlighting some trends (resolution by automobile crash, melodrama, impossibly good looking gay men and the women who love them), the breakthrough books, and the real dingers. It was like being back in library school, taking a class on LGBTQ YA Lit, but it was compressed. If you want to spend more time with these books and these issues, check out Cart and Jenkins’ book from Scarecrow Press, The Heart Has It’s Reasons.
If you get your hands on their bibliography and were not in attendance, please note that this is not a list of recommended books. Some are good and some are not so good. During introductions, we each chose books from the list to highlight. Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan and Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and Levithan got the most nods, along with the graphic novel Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki. Please add your own recommendations in the comments.
After lunch of sandwiches and delicious chocolate cupcakes, there was an author panel consisting of: Lauren Bjorkman, Kirstin Cronn-Mills, Malinda Lo, and Megan Frazer (hey, that’s me!). We talked about what brought us to write our books, the challenges we faced, and what we hope to see in the future. We compiled a list of links that are on Malinda’s site.
After the author panel, I had to dash to the Body Positivity and Fat Acceptance in Contemporary YA Fiction pre-conference (which I hope someone else blogs about, because when I came in they were sharing some awesome ideas and resources), so I cannot give a first-person account of the breakouts that occurred — if anyone else would like to chime in, please do.
If you are in Albuquerque but missed the pre-conference, you can still hear about LGBTQ issues today at 1:30 at the breakout session: The New Gay Teen: Moving Beyond the Issue Novel.