Jillian Tamaki, a Toronto-based graphic novelist whose books include Boundless, Skim, and This One Summer (the last two created with her cousin and fellow author Mariko Tamaki), has added a new feather to her cap with the release of her first picture book. They Say Blue, due out in March from Abrams, tells the story of a child who uses her senses to explore the world around her. Tamaki spoke with PW about her career as a writer and illustrator, and the experience of working in a new medium.
What were some of your favorite books as a kid?
I wish I could say my childhood was filled with high-quality literature. My favorite picture book was a Muppet book. I loved the Saddle Club series and Archie comics. Oh, I thought of some classy ones. Marguerite Henry, Roald Dahl, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess. And I loved Kit Pearson’s Guests of War series.
Can you compare working on graphic novels with the experience of writing and illustrating a picture book?
They’re pretty different. The poetry and distillation of kids’ books, in word and image, is a completely different challenge. A lot of comics [work] is just grinding out pages, if the images communicate what’s happening, that’s usually good enough in a pinch. A picture book’s images have to evoke, which is much more ephemeral.
Could you talk about where you think the origins of this story came from? Is the girl in the story based on anyone in particular?
The girl isn’t really based on anyone I know. I think she’s kind of representative of a certain state of being, when you're feeling a heightened awareness and connection to your surroundings. I suppose I’m a fan of starting with a very basic concept—in this case, colors—and trying to explore it in a way that feels new. But color feels like the starting point to the journey. Each color prompts a train of thought, an association. The book flows as she examines what she knows and doesn’t know, thinks, and feels.
Our knowledge of everything is a patchwork of our own experiences. I feel very lucky to inhabit this “observational” headspace often. I’m even rewarded for it, if I can manage to translate it into my work. At the end of her wanderings, the girl returns home to her mother who, in turn, looks out with her in the end. It’s a thank-you to my parents, who encouraged me to be free and independent.
What medium did you work in to illustrate the story and what process did you go through to decide on the look you wanted for the illustrations?
The pages are acrylic paintings that are then drawn on in the computer. I don’t know why I landed on that. It’s a bit strange. There was quite a long period of time futzing around on the look—mostly about what felt right and was flexible enough to be applied to all sorts of drawing scenarios. My editor, Susan Van Metre, and I back-and-forthed in the writing stage, and in this case, I “wrote” in sketches as well.
What do you hope readers will take away from They Say Blue?
I’ve stopped trying to anticipate what people will take away from my books. They really become semi-autonomous entities when they’re released. I guess with all my books I hope some readers feel a sense of recognition or empathy.
Are you going to write and illustrate more picture books? How about future collaborations with your cousin Mariko?
Yes! I have already signed on to another picture book. I didn’t write this one. And I’m sure I’ll do another book with Mariko. I really love the books we do together. I learn a lot from her and they are unlike any books I’m capable of making alone.
How was the experience of creating this year’s Children’s Book Week poster?
I mean, a poster is just a plum job. Not too many of those these days, so it’s pretty cool. I had fun and I think it came out cute. I really liked super detailed illustrations when I was a kid—getting lost in them and finding details.
They Say Blue by Jillian Tamaki. Abrams, $17.99 Mar. 13 ISBN 978-1-4197-2851-8