“To me, summer was always this liminal phase,” said Canadian writer Mariko Tamaki. She said that, while kids experience an intense social structure at grade school, summer provides relief—but it also raises new questions: “It went from being imaginary games and playing ponies to spending all this time at the corner store because there were cute boys there.”
She was talking about the concept of her latest book This One Summer (First Second). Written by Mariko and illustrated by lauded artist—and cousin of Mariko—Jillian Tamaki, their new YA graphic novel comes out this May. This is the duo’s second graphic novel together; their first was the acclaimed young adult graphic novel Skim, a story of unrequited love with a teenage Japanese Canadian lesbian protagonist at its center.
This One Summer examines the adult world just as much as the adolescent world. The novel focuses on sullen Rose and exuberant Windy. Rose’s parents are constantly fighting, and her new crush barely knows she’s alive. During the span of a few weeks, Rose confronts a buried family secret, and Windy feels as if she’s losing her closest summertime friend.
Subtle and thoughtful, this graphic novel emphasizes realism and emotion rather than fantasy and spectacle: It’s for readers young and old who prefer “My So-Called Life” to “The Hunger Games.” With stunning art by Jillian—who also illustrates for the New York Times, the New Yorker, and more—This One Summer is as ephemeral, breathtaking, and heartbreaking as summer love itself. The book is printed entirely in blue.
The Evolution of This One Summer
“One of the things that we said in the pitch [for This One Summer] was that it was inspired by this Burger King in Niagara Falls I had heard of that made girls pregnant,” said Mariko. She also considered making the kids younger and building the story around an imaginary world.
However, it wasn’t until First Second signed on to publish the book that she began to work on the manuscript—and to shift the story. As Mariko wrote the text, she realized she wanted to ground the tale in reality and give the parents larger roles.
“The book is an anthropological study of adults from the perspective of these two kids,” said Mariko. “I think a lot of books about kids give them their own, separate, hermetically sealed world, especially books about teenagers.” Like her favorite authors Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood, she didn’t want to restrict her young adult book to juvenile terrain.
Their Writing and Drawing Process
Surprisingly, Mariko and Jillian worked fairly independently of each other. Mariko said that her text was “more like captions.” After Jillian added the visual element of the storytelling, the two discussed via email and Skype how the story was taking shape. Mariko said, “There’s a lot of trust between the two of us that this is a story that we’re going to write together.”
The narrative was inspired by Mariko’s own experiences growing up in Toronto spending her summers in Muskoka. In her case, she felt more marginalized than most girls: “I was gay and most of my friends were straight: There was that boy-crazy versus not-boy-crazy thing.” Though This One Summer isn’t about sexual orientation per se, it’s about sexual awakening from a female point of view. Jillian told the Los Angeles Times, “Mariko and I are both proud feminists and presenting real people and stories is very important to us.”
Before Jillian embarked on drawing This One Summer, they met up in Muskoka to get a firsthand look at the setting of the book. Jillian, who had never visited the area or been a part of the summer cottage culture, said it was important to “find out what those resort little towns look like, what beaches look like there. [Visiting in person] was part of the process because if you don’t do that, it’s not going to give you that realism.”
Once Mariko handed the project over to Jillian, Jillian turned down various freelance jobs in order to work on it. “When you do a big book like this, it’s three years of your life,” Jillian said. To illustrate the 320 pages, she took one year off from freelancing and then worked on the remaining illustrations on and off for two years.
Due to the volume of work that needed to be done, Jillian didn’t get caught up deciding on a style or a look: “It is really my default drawing style. It’s very direct, it communicates what needs to be communicated.”
Although the two are cousins, they didn’t work together until Skim, which was chosen as a PW Best Book of 2008. While on a book tour, Mariko chatted with her friend Emily Pohl-Weary who was looking to publish comics projects. Mariko described her idea, a gothic Lolita story. “I think I might have said maybe my cousin will illustrate it,” Mariko told The National Post in 2008. Jillian, already a working illustrator, said yes.
Jillian said of creating Skim, “It was not any calculated thing. We were just really lucky and had the good sense of jumping on an opportunity.” Initially a 24-page mini-comic, the two decided to expand it to a full-length YA graphic novel. This was a big leap; neither Mariko nor Jillian really grew up reading or creating comics. Jillian told the Los Angeles Times last year that illustrating Skim “taught me pretty much everything I know about doing comics.”
For accidental collaborators who didn’t have backgrounds in creating comics, the book was a wild success: It won the 2008 Ignatz Award for outstanding graphic novel, the New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Books Award, and was nominated for four 2009 Eisner awards including Best Writer and Best Penciller/Inker.
Said Mariko of Skim’s resonance, “If we sit at a comic book convention, there’s a wide spectrum of people who want to come up and talk to us, the grey-haired lady with the glasses on a chain and the guy with the Super Mario Brothers t-shirt—all those people. That’s what you would want.”
Mariko, a freelance writer who splits her time between Oakland and Toronto, continues to lead a peripatetic creative career. She has a master’s in women’s studies and a Ph.D. in linguistic anthropology, but she eschewed traditional academia and teaches fiction writing for young adults for the University of Toronto. She recently wrote and starred in a short film, “Happy Sixteenth Birthday, Kevin.” She’s currently writing another YA novel. Mariko said, “I pretty much never turn down an opportunity to tell a story.”
Jillian continues to illustrate for top clients and craft her webcomic, SuperMutant Magic Academy, which Drawn & Quarterly will publish as a book in Spring 2015. Jillian has contributed illustration to the New York Times and many other prestigious clients, but she attributes her success not just to her talent but also to luck and entrepreneurial skills. “I don’t really have a lot of control over who calls me or who decides to give me work,” said Jillian. “I’m just really grateful that my clients have found a place for me.”
“People have been really generous; they let me try all these different things,” she said. “Things go in and out of fashion pretty quickly, so to be around 20 years from now, I think that your work has to evolve.”
With the duo’s multifaceted background, unique perspective, and universal appeal, they’re poised to stick around for many summers to come.