This month, Canadian children’s publisher Groundwood Books will make its first foray into the world of graphic novels when it publishes Skim, a nuanced coming-of-age story written by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by her cousin Jillian Tamaki. Set in Toronto in 1993, this moody and affecting work follows several months in the life of Skim, a disaffected teenage girl fascinated by the practice of Wicca, a popular version of witchcraft, and her circle of sharply portrayed friends (and enemies).
Groundwood publisher Patsy Aldana said Skim will have an initial print run of 20,000 copies and the house was “thrilled” to find a graphic novel that fits well with its list. “Groundwood is a very literary high-end children’s publisher,” Aldana said, “and Skim was the same quality or higher than the rest of the books we publish.”
Skimhas gone through several transformations since Mariko originally conceived of a “gothic Lolita story.” After morphing into the tale of a lonely, plump, tarot card-loving high school student, it appeared as a 30-page comic in the comic series Kiss Machine Presents, an indie-oriented Toronto arts and literary magazine. That comic forms the basis for Part I of the graphic novel, although it has been revised substantially. The book was originally to be 96 pages, but Jillian explained that by the time she had completed the art for Parts II and III, it had “ballooned” to 144. “I felt I needed more space.”
The Tamakis, although cousins, did not know each other well before beginning the project. However, the collaboration process proved to be remarkably smooth, especially considering neither had worked on a comic before. Jillian noted, “It was a cocreation, in the purest sense of the world.” Mariko, who is a performer as well as an essayist and novelist living in Toronto, sent to Jillian, in Brooklyn, scripts consisting of narration and dialogue, but little direction as to what should happen on the page. Jillian had a free hand to illustrate the story as she saw fit. “My job was to make this a visually beautiful object,” she said.
Both author and artist strove to create a high school story that moved beyond the stereotypes and melodrama that typically make up the genre. Mariko explained, “I tried to get the dialogue as close to what I remember teenagers sounding like,” adding that she trusted Jillian to create “teenage bodies that looked like teenage bodies.” The two have tried to create a work of literary depth that also offers hints about even minor characters’ lives beyond the central story line of Skim. Mariko stresses that ultimately the book is about “the instability of relationships in high school—the slow complicated way friendships break up and change.”
While Aldana believes the book’s primary audience will be adolescents, the book’s lyrical writing and lush, expressive artwork should broaden its appeal. Indeed, Fred Horler, Groundwood’s institutional marketing manager, noted that at a luncheon hosted by Groundwood at the American Library Association meeting in January, the two creators “won over hearts and minds as they discussed the genesis and creative process behind Skim.” Both Tamakis will appear at a variety of indie-comics festivals in the next year, including New York City’s MoCCA Art Festival in June, the Alternative Press Expo in San Francisco in November and SPX in October in Washington, D.C. In addition, Mariko will participate in author events around Toronto and may appear on local radio and television. Skim will be distributed in the United States by Publishers Group West and in Canada by HarperCollins Canada.
Jillian and Mariko have not ruled out a sequel, but both are cautious about diving into another project. “It is so much work—heart, soul, blood, tears—it would have to be a special story,” said Jillian. Aldana said that Groundwood would welcome another Skim book, but in the meantime, the house will keep an eye out for graphic novels of similar literary and artistic quality.