It’s not every day that a graphic novel is recognized for a prestigious literary honor, but writer Mariko Tamaki and artist Jillian Tamaki’s evocative masterpiece, This One Summer, just accomplished the unprecedented feat of taking home both a Printz Honor (for outstanding young adult literature) and a Caldecott Honor (for exceptional picture book art), awarded by the American Library Association at the Youth Media Awards in Chicago yesterday.
Rendered in a lush, monochromatic blue, This One Summer takes place at a summer lake house as two young girls find themselves on opposite sides of the widening gap between adolescence and young adulthood. With a mélange of marital tension, local teen drama and complicated friendship, Jillian and Mariko Tamaki have created a quietly heartbreaking — and hopeful — microcosm of life on the cusp of growing up. Paste spoke with the cousins over the phone to discuss award recognition, collaboration, and writing for audiences of all ages…or not.
Paste: Congratulations on your Printz and Caldecott recognition, which, up until today, felt mutually exclusive! Were you surprised to find you’d been honored in both categories, including one that’s traditionally for picture books?
Mariko Tamaki: I knew that they were coming up but I was trying not to think about them too much, so I was super honored and happy, but not necessarily surprised.
Jillian Tamaki: I was surprised only because I didn’t know when it was happening… I don’t pay that much attention to awards. That sounds, like, really pretentious. [laughs] I guess I was surprised only in that I wasn’t expecting a call like that, and I did presume that a Caldecott would be more for a picture book, but I think we’ve been surprised throughout our collaborations at where our books could fit in.
This One Summer is the first graphic novel to receive the Caldecott Honor, and I believe it’s only the second to receive Printz recognition.
Mariko Tamaki: I think [Gene Luen Yang’s] American Born Chinese was the first one?
Paste: Right, in 2007. And this past fall you also picked up the first Governor General Award for Children’s Literature Illustration given to a graphic novel. What does it mean to you to be recognized for non-comic-exclusive awards?
Jillian Tamaki: I think that’s great. I think that by being recognized by, say, library associations — and it’s great to be recognized by comics people as well — I think it just means that a wider variety and range of people are reading comics, which I think is a good thing for creators and the medium itself.
Mariko Tamaki: I think that comics have been kind of emerging in stages. One way to say it is that it’s a fad and publishers are getting interested in graphic novels, but I think in the larger scheme that more readers are collectively understanding that there’s a variety of ways to absorb a story. And comics being included with other literary awards is sort of a nice recognition that comics are literary, and as much as they’re beautiful, that they also can tell complex stories, which a lot of comics before this have been able to do.
Paste: Many of these awards sort of recognize one of you over the other, as they’re traditionally given to prose writers or picture book illustrators. Is it strange having a collaborative work parsed apart like that?
Jillian Tamaki: Absolutely. That’s why I think it’s great that these two awards just recognize the book, as opposed to trying to parse out who tells the story and who creates the images, and the role of those things. It’s just such a different interplay with comics than with a traditional picture book. We’ve always been bumping up against this in our collaborations, so this is great. We don’t have to feel conflicted!
Mariko Tamaki: Exactly, we can have a prize in both homes. We don’t have to hold one of them hostage. [Laughs] It’s also that we’re proud of this book as a collaboration. It’s not like you think, I really like the words in this book. I think the words in this book are excellent. It’s always been that you’re proud of the final product, so it’s nice to see that that’s something that is translatable to someone other than just us.
Paste: You work remotely from each other, but the marriage of art and words is so close that it feels like the work of one person. Was there a lot of back and forth during the creative process or was it a pretty clear division between script and art?
Jillian Tamaki: There was a lot of back and forth at certain stages of the project, like the initial pitch and when the initial script was finished and when the sketches were finished, and that was when we could consult with one another. But for the most part, it’s the individual sitting alone making this thing. [Laughs]
Mariko Tamaki: Both of us go into this process as a collaboration knowing that our goal is to work together to create the story. And for my process and for Jillian’s process, even if you’re working alone, your mind is sort of on the fact that you’re bringing these two things together. So it’s lonely but you’ll always have your sister in your heart, like an emotional connection — I think. [Laughs]
Paste: Mariko, you write for prose and performance, too. What about This One Summer made it right for comics?
Mariko Tamaki: When Jillian first said she was interested in making another book, I just thought it was something that could be really beautiful, with the atmosphere and the trees and water. It just seemed to me like it was this incredible setting for a book. For me it was always a story that would become a comic book.
Paste: How much do you keep young readers in mind while working on a project? You’ve both spoken about not necessarily writing “for” kids, and clearly adults are connecting with This One Summer too.
Jillian Tamaki: I don’t ever really consider the kids that would be reading the book. I’m always kind of surprised, in a way, of what is considered appropriate for kids. But, like, pleasantly, in that there is stuff in both of the books that we’ve made that I would think some parents would not feel comfortable with, but librarians and our publisher, thank god, are willing to take a risk with it. I think that, A. kids always like to be titillated, and B. I think that it’s important to me that our work be layered for different audiences.
Mariko Tamaki: I was actually surprised once when a publisher informed me that basically the [intended audience age] of the book that you write is for the age of the main character, which I did not know. I think that that’s the most I try to pay attention to it, in that I try to make it as true to the experience as I can think it would be. So other than that responsibility, the idea that you’re shaping or molding something for a younger reader implies that you’re teaching them something or setting up a guideline for them of what’s good or what’s bad behavior, which I’m not really into as a writer.
Paste: A lot of comics popular with young readers do get challenged at school and library levels, often because they visually depict things that other books imply through text. It’s hard to talk too much about the plot without giving things away, but have you encountered any concern over some of the mature topics tackled in the book?
Mariko Tamaki: Yes, it was removed from a school, I believe in New Jersey? Almost removed, but the librarian, as librarians are prone to do, put up a good fight and made sure it was kept on the shelf. I think the thing with this book, which is kind of great, is that it’s more about what they talk about than what they show, which to me is the life of a twelve-year-old. All you’re doing is vaguely describing what you think anyone is talking about. Especially when it comes to sexual stuff, you’re just guessing. So that’s kind of what happens in the book a lot, is a lot of guessing. On that level, I really don’t think there’s anything in here that’s more graphic than what you would find on CSI. There are no female dead bodies to look at!
Paste: It’s definitely less graphic than most of what you find on TV, but it does deal with some mature emotional themes for sure.
Jillian Tamaki: As we were on tour last year, we would talk to teenagers and then we’d talk to adults, people older than us even that have read the book, and it became really apparent that, depending on your age, experience or point in your life, you are gravitating toward different themes and different characters. Some of the younger kids are not even aware that there are other machinations happening within the story, which I think is really cool.
Mariko Tamaki: When Jillian and I were in Houston, we met these young boys who were pretty obsessed with the one male teenage boy character, and they were all about the experience of this one boy and his girlfriend, who in their mind was cheating on him, and I was like, wow, you have walked out of this really feminist book with the one male, macho story to talk about. But they were perfectly content with that so I was like, okay, cool, maybe read the book when you’re ten years older and it’ll be a different story.
Jillian Tamaki: It depends on what age you’re closest to. If you’re an adult, you’re viewing the marriage completely differently, and the girl is a nostalgic view, versus a protagonist if you’re younger.
Paste: Were comics or manga were influential to either of you growing up?
Jillian Tamaki: Not when I was a child, beyond Archie comics, which I do feel taught me how to draw in a way, copying some of the forms and just admiring some of the art in those comics. But then at some point, that was not interesting anymore. I don’t even know at that point if there was something like there is now, with comics for every age. I just stopped reading comics until I was in college, and that’s when I started discovering alternative comics. So yes and no.
Mariko Tamaki: Yeah, I think the same for me. I was never really interested in a lot of the content that was available in comic form. I was never a superhero person, and I did not care if Archie chose Betty or Veronica. It did not seem like a worthwhile pursuit to me. It wasn’t until [Marjane Satrapi’s] Persepolis that I was re-engaged with comics. It was the first time that I really got the whole package with comics in terms of words and pictures.
Paste: Is there anything you’re reading now that you’d particularly recommend?
Mariko Tamaki: For younger readers, I really am liking Lumberjanes. I think it’s going to be available in a collected book relatively soon. And I really like How To Be Happy by Eleanor Davis, which is a beautiful book.
Jillian Tamaki: I haven’t read a lot of comics lately. [Laughs]
Mariko Tamaki: Oh no! Then I’m also going to recommend The Wicked + The Divine, which is a really good comic book series as well.
Paste: Jillian, you’ve cited older manga as a color palette inspiration for This One Summer, and you work in a lot of different styles. What was your artistic process like on this book? How did you settle on this art style?
Jillian Tamaki: I think that it’s a style that is very practical, in that I can draw it very quickly. I’m really comfortable with that medium of brush pen, so that is the medium that I chose because I needed to do a book in a year. [Laughs] That was kind of a practical choice, and I just think that it sort of fit the content, which was quite specific, quite realist, in the dialogue and the location and the setting. I thought it kind of fit and felt very naturalistic, but impressionistic, the blend of highly realistic environment and nature, and these sort of cartoony people overlaid on top of that.
Paste: 2014 was a pretty good year for discussions about feminism and body diversity in mainstream comics, both of which feel very natural and intrinsic to This One Summer. Was that an intentional choice?
Jillian Tamaki: I’ve been an illustrator for over a decade now, and I always try to put diversity in my figures just because it’s more interesting. And I think visibility is powerful, as somebody who grew up mixed race in a very, very white part of Canada, Calgary, which is very different now. But when I was growing up there, I was the only mixed race kid in my school. I think you’re always looking around to see yourself in your surroundings. It’s not like you’re exactly changing the world by putting a variety of body shapes in a comic book, but who knows. As for feminism, that’s an interest of ours, and it embodies a lot of our personalities and thinking so that’s natural that it’s going to come through in our work, both of our work, either way.
Paste: Your last collaboration, Skim, also collected a lot of awards both inside and outside comic-exclusive categories. What can we expect to see from you next, either individually or collaboratively?
Mariko Tamaki: Jillian’s got a book coming out!
Jillian Tamaki: I have a book coming out in April, called SuperMutant Magic Academy, and that is the collection of my webcomic that has been going for four years, plus new material. It’s different from This One Summer in that it’s a collection of strips with some longer narrative in it. It’s like a different beast, so I’m excited to see what people think. That’s coming out in the spring from Drawn & Quarterly.
Mariko Tamaki: It’s super awesome.
Jillian Tamaki: Do you have a new book, Mariko?
Mariko Tamaki: It’s all to be announced, so I’m working on a bunch of things. I’m working on some things that are going to be just prose and I’m working on some comic projects, but they’re all sort of up in the air still. As soon as they’ve landed, I’ll let you know.
Paste: One last question: in the book, Rose and Windy really freak themselves out renting horror movies. Do either of you have favorite cabin scare flicks?
Jillian Tamaki: I’m such a wimp, such a wimp. [Laughs]
Mariko Tamaki: The funniest thing is I that I hate scary movies, and I knew when I included [those scenes] that I was like, I’m so glad I don’t have to watch these.