Aaron Meshon met his wife, Ayako, 10 years ago at a softball game in Chinatown under the Manhattan Bridge. She’s Japanese, and they’ve traveled back and forth to Japan together more than a dozen times. And they’re both crazy about baseball—or yakyu, as it’s known in Japanese. Hence the topic of Meshon’s writer-illustrator debut, Take Me Out to the Yakyu (S&S, Feb.). In a series of contrasting spreads, an earnest, freckled boy describes going to see ballgames in both countries, carefully cataloguing the crucial differences: food (hot dogs and peanuts vs. soba noodles and edamame), souvenirs (giant foam hand vs. giant plastic horn), and what the fans yell (“Win!” vs. “Do your best!”). The book hit a home run with reviewers, a response that took Meshon by surprise. “It’s an honor,” he says.
The book reads like the autobiography of a biculturally raised child, but Meshon says it’s not. “I grew up on a farm 70 miles outside of Philadelphia, and I wasn’t that interested in sports. It’s more like the boy in the book is me now, as an adult. It’s kind of like going to Japan lets me be a kid again, ” he says. “Everything is new to me, the way it would be to a kid.”
Yet despite its cheerful tone, the book also contains a wistful acknowledgment of the difficulty of being part of two cultures. “It’s wonderful to have two homes, but it’s painful, too,” Meshon says. “When I’m there, I miss my home. And when I’m here, I’m without half my family.”
Meshon had been waiting for quite a while for a chance to do a picture book. A 1995 Rhode Island School of Design graduate, he worked for 18 years as an editorial illustrator, sending portfolios to publishers “every six months or so,” but never getting a bite. “Then I got a call from Rubin Pfeffer [an agent with East West Literary Agency]. He’d seen some editorial work I’d done for the Boston Globe, and he said, ‘Aaron, would you ever do a picture book?’ So we met, and he asked me what I liked, and I told him Japan and baseball, and he said, ‘Write me a story in a day or two.’ ‘Okay,’ I said, and I went home and it just flowed out. I work better under constraints. It’s like the difference between saying, ‘Draw something,’ and saying, ‘Draw me a wheelbarrow.’ ”
The manuscript had already been sent out to publishers when the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami of March 2011 struck Japan. As Meshon and his wife watched the reports streaming out of the country, they realized that her family might be in danger. They reserved a sheaf of plane tickets and offered everyone refuge in Brooklyn. “Relax,” the family responded. “We’ll be okay.” And they were. Only Meshon’s mother-in-law took them up on their offer, and she was in the U.S. three weeks later when the call came from Simon & Schuster.
“My editor, Namrata Tripathi, is Indian, but she grew up in a lot of different countries. She seemed confident about the topic. The book was really specific, but she understood that it would appeal to many people.” He credits Tripathi with lots of writing help. “She’d say things like, ‘If you put this there, it would be better.’ And when I wasn’t certain something was right, she’d reassure me. It was great working with Ann Bobco, the art director, too. I wanted all the pages to be full-bleed and to line up—like the horizons and such—but Ann suggested that some pages be “silhouetted” with white borders around the art to give the reader a pause, a break, to show that this was indeed two different places.”
He notes the difference between the world of editorial illustration and the world of picture books. “When you do editorial work, it’s one-week deadline jobs with little feedback. I worked completely alone. But now I’m working with all these different people, and there’s lots of teamwork.”
Meshon has a second book in the works with Simon & Schuster, Tools Rule, about a group of tools that unite to build a shed, due out in spring 2014. “I only had a month to do this one,” he says. “It was like the editorial jobs I do; I did a page a day, 12 to 15 hours a day for a month. It’s digital art, so it’s simpler. It’s for a younger audience.”
Switching themes from baseball to tools, he says, necessitated another change in work style: “We needed all new goofy puns. Before we were saying things like, ‘Great teamwork, guys! You hit that outta the park!’ We called the release date ‘opening day.’ Now we’re saying, ‘Let’s build a great book! We have to nail this idea down!’ ”