Laced with themes of community, identity and love, author-illustrator Katie Yamasaki’s picture books offer sensitive, nuanced stories in an accessible format—a description that also fits her work as an internationally renowned muralist. Inspired by her work with formerly incarcerated people, Yamasaki’s latest book, Dad Bakes, centers a father, his daughter, and the loving relationship between them. PW spoke with Yamasaki about her path to illustration, her work with communities impacted by incarceration, restorative justice, and more.

Can you talk a bit about how you came to mural painting, and how it informs your picture books?

I actually didn’t have any intention of becoming a muralist. I went to graduate school to study illustration, and when I finished, I was so determined to do picture books—but I couldn’t really get anything published. I was trying to do social justice and diverse books in about 2003; that was a while before they were the main thing people wanted to publish, and also I think my work wasn’t quite ready, and I was trying to figure out how to make a living.

I had worked as a public school teacher before, and when I came into illustration, I never really wanted to be just a studio artist—by myself all the time in the studio. So for my first job out of grad school, my friend’s mom was a librarian at South Orange Middle School [in New Jersey], and she said, “Why don’t you come and paint a mural on the library walls?” I had never painted a mural; I had just honestly learned how to paint in grad school, and I was kind of like, “Well, okay!” I was really comfortable in the school environment because that’s what I’d been doing since college, and I loved it so much because I love interacting with students, teachers, administrators, custodians—everyday people who I wanted to be my main audience. I was always very turned off by the fine art world.

Murals are kind of their own advertisements—you do one, and then all of a sudden, people think, “Oh, I want a mural.” I got into more and more mural programs, and the projects grew, and it kind of just took over. What I love about it is the same thing I love about picture books—it’s a very accessible, meaningful way to tell the stories that often don’t get elevated or have a platform. So whether that’s at a public middle school, or with people who are incarcerated or in HIV support groups or immigrant groups—anything where there are these powerful, beautiful stories about everyday human life—[I was able] to use this artform to work in partnership with communities to tell their stories, in a way that I wasn’t quite there yet with my books.

Coming to picture books took me a long time. I had an internship with Ed Young when I was 20 or 21, like in 1997. He and my aunt were best friends because they had been in Tai Chi school together in New York City in the ’60s, and he needed somebody to archive his art. He had at that point about 80 children’s books, so I went to stay with him and his family for the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college, and got to just look at all of his work. And it was as amazing as you would think, to see that all of the work doesn’t just look like this beautiful finished work—it has all these rough parts and figuring out and not knowing how to draw certain things. That was really liberating to me as a 20-year-old beginning artist, because I didn’t study art growing up at all. And also the types of stories he was telling—stories from China, from his family; [back then] we didn’t see those kinds of stories centering people of color very much, and he was making a lot of them.

So I devoted myself to mural making, and I was always working on book dummies, they just weren’t getting published. My first book was in 2007, illustrating a story for Lee & Low about Honda, the auto manufacturer. And the next one after that was Fish for Jimmy in 2013, and it was very meaningful, but it just took me a long time. In the meantime, I was a public school art teacher, which I loved. And the theme of stories was always embedded.

To me, the murals and the books are telling the same stories, just in different forms—the murals you have one big shot at it, and the books you have 32 pages, more or less. Murals are looser in structure and form; you take creative liberties a lot of the time, with multiple timelines and perspectives, and I bring that aesthetic into my books as much as possible.

I had an agent right out of grad school, and we could never sell anything. And I’m grateful, because if I had, I probably never would have taken to murals in the way that I did. In the beginning, murals pay nothing or almost nothing, so you have to do a lot of them to make a living. I was always just really busy, and then with all of those partnerships, all of those communities, you’re making relationships and hearing stories that alter your worldview. And it really makes you think, especially, about who gets to tell their story, and why.

The art in Dad Bakes is lovely and so distinctive. Can you talk about your illustration process for this book?

In some ways it’s such a simple story, and I wanted [the art] to be really simple, and full of color, and full of life. Because the back story, which most people don’t realize until they read the author’s note, is that this loving father, who we get to know first as a baker, and a gardener, and a cat lover, and a dress-up player, has a more complicated past, as someone who was formerly incarcerated. And in that sense, we get to know the daughter as resilient and independent and resourceful and creative, and I wanted to enhance the vibrancy of the images to deepen the narrative on who these characters are, to let them be full characters.

I’ve never been incarcerated myself, but I have many close relationships with those who have been or are currently incarcerated—so much of the time, something happens where all of a sudden, you have this single defining characteristic. You’re not a baker, or a gardener, or a parent, you’re just a criminal. A felon. An inmate. A lot of the time in facilities, that’s all they call people. It’s so problematic on so many levels, but one is that kids know their parents to be so much more. And I don’t ever mean to minimize or oversimplify the complexity of what it is for a kid to have an incarcerated parent, but I do know that it’s really important for kids to get to decide who their parent is on their own, and not let the stigma or stereotypes weigh too heavily on their relationship. One thing is, when the family can heal and a parent can return, there’s a much lower chance of recidivism. With the paintings, I really wanted to emphasize the warmth and the depth of each character and their lives.

What I’ve been struck by whenever I work in prisons is the lack of sensory experiences that are positive, that make you feel like a human being. It’s extreme positive-sensory deprivation. I wanted to invert that, so you can smell the bread and feel the colors vibrating, the warmth of the kitchen and the warmth outside—to have it be a sensory experience that stands in contrast to what the father likely experienced when incarcerated.

The original illustrations are probably each about two and a half feet [before getting scaled down for the book]. My other book, Everything Naomi Loved, was huge—I delivered these giant rolls of canvas to the publisher because it’s just hard for me to work small. I paint much bigger because it feels more natural; I usually put my stuff on a wooden board on an easel or staple it to the wall. But I love actual painting on canvas—digital art escapes me completely. It’s interesting because I think for people who are younger or more computer savvy, there’s something about how productive you can be with digital art. I have no ability to use color digitally, and it hurts my whole body to be over a tablet all day, whereas it just feels good to paint.

Can you talk a little about your work with those incarcerated or formerly incarcerated?

I’ve done a bunch of different projects with different groups of people. One of my most memorable was with mothers who were incarcerated on Rikers Island, and then their children in East Harlem. I did a lot of workshops with both groups, especially with the moms; they designed a mural and a message for their kids, and then the kids painted it in East Harlem, and vice versa. It was one of those things where you feel people focusing on something that’s really painful—their separation—but also something that’s really powerful: their love. Especially with the moms, who were in such a stressful situation being at Rikers. Some of them were in there for eight months without having a hearing, just because they couldn’t afford bail. I’m not a psychologist or a therapist, but it seemed like [it gave them a chance] to face these relationships and think about their children and write about them; just [an opportunity to consider] yourself as a more complete person than you’re really allowed to be when your defenses are up so high and you’re terrified, and it feels like everything is falling apart. Honestly, I would go in sometimes, and those workshops were supposed to be one and a half or two hours long, but it would be so peaceful in there that the corrections officer might let me stay for four hours. There’s something that happens when you are painting or drawing or have art materials in front of you that seems neurologically calming.

And then with the kids, it was like, working on the street, and then—because East Harlem has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the city—having so many people from the community pass by and relate their experiences, too. And it was a destigmatizing moment, where these kids could feel like this isn’t something to hide from. One of the reasons I wanted to put this book out there is because a lot of people don’t know how to talk about this, including teachers and parents or caregivers, so it’s a gateway to help kids open up about their experiences, to not feel ashamed and maybe talk about some hard things. In the first few pages of the book, you see the girl with the box of letters from her dad; [that could open a conversation with kids] about what to do when you’re really missing somebody. I hope that people who don’t have the experience of having a parent who’s incarcerated might [still relate to] how painful it is when you miss somebody, when you’re not separated by choice.

"I hope that people who don't have the experience of having a parent who's incarcerated might [still relate to] how painful it is when you miss somebody, when you're not separated by choice."

I also worked with groups of teenage boys who are incarcerated in different teen facilities, and lots of people rebuilding their lives after coming home from incarceration. I did one mural for Amnesty International about this woman who had been incarcerated; she had been charged with infanticide after she had a stillbirth in the ninth month of her pregnancy. This was in El Salvador, and she was incarcerated for something like 20–30 years. So Amnesty was working to get her out, and there were a bunch of other women incarcerated for the same thing, and when I was painting that mural, I was seven months pregnant. At the time, I couldn’t really relate to her—I had great prenatal healthcare, I had all this support, good medical stuff—but I cared about her and her case. Two months later, when I was nine months pregnant, almost at my due date, my son was also stillborn. The irony of that was so brutal, but it was the most traumatic thing I had ever experienced, and the idea that you could be incarcerated—she was also separated from her son who was 11, and she ended up spending 11 years in prison before Amnesty got her out—that you could be criminalized for these things.

And that’s the case with mass incarceration in general, right? Some people are incarcerated for the exact same things that others are not; it really depends on who you are, not what you’ve done. I always resonate with that, because my family was incarcerated with the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans, and to just think about the generational impact, how that impacts people, and communities, on so many different levels.

What I hope is that people will relate to my dad character just as a loving dad, no matter what their circumstances are, and also relate to the idea that any person is so much more than the worst thing they’ve experienced. What I’m trying to do is give people, teachers and parents especially, the opportunity to read into it as much as they are ready to. I have a four-year-old, and she doesn’t know much about prison or mass incarceration—well, she does know about the internment—but we talk about [the book] as the father and daughter were separated for a while and that’s why she has letters, and at some point, we’ll talk about how he had to be away because something bad had happened. But I hope that with older kids, teachers will dive in a bit more, and that readers of any age, even adults, really consider how we think about people who have become incarcerated. Most of those people are going to come back into the community, and if we want a healthy society, we have to figure out how to support them.

What do you think are some of the most pressing issues facing communities impacted by incarceration, or issues you feel that the general public isn’t aware of?

This is such an important question, because I think people often don’t think about that. Everyone usually says “jobs, they just need a job,” which is definitely true, but there’s also this immense amount of trauma.

The reason I was able to get back to work [after losing my son] was I had a mural right after I did When the Cousins Came. I kept thinking, like, “How am I going to get in front of people again?” because I felt so traumatized. The way I do murals is I sit in community with people around a table, and talk, and listen—I listen a lot, because the murals are often based on the lived experiences of that group—and this one was with formerly incarcerated mothers. One of the women in the group was about my age, which was late 30s at the time, and she had been out of prison for almost a year. She was coming up on the end of her parole, and she was so stressed and anxious that she was going to reoffend—that the world was so triggering and unpredictable, and she was stressed about money and her family and all these things, and she hadn’t been out of prison that long since she was 17 years old. Watching and hearing the responses of all the women in the group, coaching her through this from their own experiences—I was just thinking about how brave people have to be out in the world. At the time, I had just found out that I was six weeks pregnant with my daughter, who’s now four, and I was like, “How am I supposed to get through this pregnancy?” Because my last pregnancy had ended in disaster, and it was completely unexpected. But watching [this woman] be brave, I felt that I could be brave, too.

I think one place to start is to honor the trauma that people have experienced, not just while they were incarcerated, but before that, too. Mental health support is so critical for healing. But all of these things operate in concert—there also has to be a way for them to make a living and reconnect with their families. I think that the restorative justice movement—of making amends with what has happened, and if need be, connecting with the victim’s family—is significant. As much as people talk about education and jobs, which are totally critical, the trauma component is really, really important. You can’t have one without the other—you can’t come back without having a safe place to live, a job, what all of us need—it’s no different, except there’s this massive trauma component, and that’s also for the family dealing with long-term separation. It may seem obvious, but I think [we need to] keep all of these people—millions of people—in our consciousness. I have friends who birthed babies while incarcerated, handcuffed to the hospital bed, and while that’s been outlawed in New York, it hasn’t been in many states. That trauma lives with you.

I think the tricky thing now is there’s so much bad news in the world that sometimes people feel fatigued to hear these stories, but we’ve just got to integrate them in a natural way—instead of [hearing them as] one more sad NPR story that makes you want to turn your radio off, [we should consider,] “This is just a normal child, and there are millions of children like them that we all need to get to know a little better.”

What do you hope readers will take away from this narrative?

I’ve seen reviews wondering why I didn’t offer the dad’s history up front. The whole point is that you get to know this family as just a family—these quiet moments of joy—and then learn more about them afterward. It puts a bit of responsibility on the reader, to investigate their own assumptions. There’s this binary of good guys vs. bad guys—if you’re good, you stay, if you’re bad, you go away—but it’s actually so much more complicated than that.

My biggest goal with the book is for us always to be seeing each other more clearly. Right now, I’m working on my grandfather’s biography; he came of age in the ’30s to the ’50s, when the worst thing you could be besides African American was Japanese American, in terms of how you were treated by society. Thinking about how people saw him—and for Japanese Americans, there’s no comparison with Black Americans’ experience, much less violence, for one—I do think of this theme of seeing more clearly.

I did this one project with teenage boys who were incarcerated, and we were doing word bubbles with another teaching artist. We asked, “How do you see yourself?” and they put things like, “smart,” “loving brother,” “good babysitter,” “good at math,” “great dancer,” “good kisser.” [When we asked,]“How do other people see you?,” [they said,] “dumb,” mean,” “violent,” “dangerous,” “not going to be nothing.” These ways that we misjudge people are violent and dangerous—literally—at the end of the day. So I hope that, starting at the youngest ages, we all try to see each other more clearly, to see ourselves in each other. I hope people will see themselves a little bit in this book.

Dad Bakes by Katie Yamasaki. Norton, $17.95 Oct. 26 ISBN 978-1-324-01541-3