An Interview with Jillian and Mariko Tamaki


Savanna Scott Leslie: Firstly, congratulations on the release of This One Summer. Like your first collaboration, Skim, This One Summer is a coming-of-age story that I found incredibly relatable while it also conjures a very specific space and time. How much do you draw on your own childhood memories in developing these immersive stories and these richly illustrated worlds?

Mariko Tamaki: I try to use my memories of childhood to inspire but not populate what I write. So, definitely the setting of This One Summer is based on my own memories of being at the cottage in Georgian Bay, Ontario. A lot of the details, like the corn on the cob and the kids at the corner store, are from those memories. But the actual characters are more built out of an idea I had to look at how families talk to each other. Really about how people in general talk about subjects that are taboo or just emotionally hard. Once I knew what I wanted to talk about, I started piecing together the people I wanted to see in that conversation, and it kind of built out from there. I was definitely inspired by the work I was doing, at the time with the LGBTQ Parenting Network, which is a Toronto organization that helps LGBTQ parents and prospective parents. Being in that environment got me to thinking about motherhood and parenting in a way I had never really done before.

SSL: Skim offers such an authentic take on school life and relationships, while This One Summer captures those ephemeral summer days and the trials of family life. What entices you to keep revisiting adolescence in your collaborations?

MT: It’s so hard to say. Why teenagers? I guess why not? Teenagers are really interesting. I mean, as a teenager, you’re just starting to get into all these things that adults take for granted. You’re in that “figuring it out” territory, which is so exciting and volatile all at once. At the same time, I think this book, more than any other book I’ve ever worked on, is about the connection between adults and kids. It’s really a book about adults from a kid perspective.

Jillian Tamaki: I completely agree. Teenagers are really funny too. Adolescents are both children and adults, constantly wavering between the two. It’s just a very vivid time. You are not very chill when you’re a preteen/teen, which allows for action. My life as an adult is pretty boring because I’ve calmed down a lot.

SSL: Skim is well loved by adult readers as well as young people. A 2012 study found that 55% of young adult books are actually bought by adults. Did knowing adults are also likely to read This One Summer affect your approach?

MT: I try not to worry about readers. It’s hard enough to create something that’s what you want it to be. Creating it for someone is just too much pressure.

JT: Agreed. I don’t think either of us ever creates “for a demographic.” I think it’s actually more flukey that people think our books are YA or whatnot. Mariko and I both write for adults, I think.

SSL: Jillian, you told the Los Angeles Times in October, “Mariko and I are both proud feminists and presenting real people and stories is very important to us.” There seems to be a trend in children’s publishing for books that are less authentic and more rigidly gendered—along such lines of “Girls’ Book of Boring Princesses” versus “Great Big Book of Snot for Boys,” as the Independent’s Katy Guest recently characterized them in the UK. Firstly, did either of you feel any pressure to more explicitly or stereotypically feminize Skim or This One Summer? And secondly, how does creating books like these that discuss racism, sex, pregnancy, body image, lesbianism, self-harm, and other realities for girls challenge that superficial gender binary we often see in children’s publishing?

MT: There’s never been any pressure from either Groundwood or First Second to do anything other than tell our story. So we’re very lucky that way. I don’t know if the existence of these books challenges anything. To me it’s about expanding what’s out there and the kinds of stories we present as stories about girls, about sexuality, about what it means to be the member of a family.

JT: I would not make a book that required selling out such fundamental ideals to me. Comics take too much work and pay too little for that kind of compromise. I want to see more nuanced images of women and girls in the media, and luckily we have partnered up with publishers that feel the same way.

SSL: Although comic book stores like The Dragon in Guelph, Ontario, work to cultivate a gender-inclusive space, it still seems that women and other people who don’t identify as masculine often find stores, conventions, and online comic book communities alienating. (Comic artist Noelle Stevenson’s piece about this comes to mind.) Have you experienced this kind of gender bias in Canada’s graphic novel community? How accessible are comic books and graphic novels to girls and young women?

MT: I don’t think I’ve ever encountered “the patriarchal institution” in the comic book world. That said, I’m not really an authority on it. As a writer, I’m part of many different communities of artists. The comic book has some great communities, chock-full of amazing men and women who make and support great work by men and women. Do we need more comics about and by women? Probably, because the scales, historically, have been pretty tipped in favour of stories about and by men. Are we headed in the right direction towards a greater diversity of stories? I think so. Does it need to get even better? Sure. Because there are lots of groups of people (re: gender, sexuality, race, and culture) that are not represented in comics, who could and should be.

JT: Agreed. Mainstream comics have never really interested me, so I don’t think about the issues in that world too much, to be honest. (One can only be annoyed with so many things in this world, after all.) Go to an alt-indie comics fest and at least half of the attendees and exhibitors are women, I’d guess. I think the next step is making lots of different types of comics available to different types of girls—not just the self-selected arty-indie-comicsy crowd. I think libraries have a lot to do with that. And frankly, we should all be thanking manga, which is incredibly popular with both young girls and boys, for paving the way to a broader acceptance.

SSL: Skim was your first graphic novel, and it met with considerable acclaim. How important were Skim’s reviews and awards in its success and in leading up to This One Summer? How important have reviews and awards been throughout your careers?

JT: Who knows how much of this publishing stuff works? Yes, I’m sure the reviews helped (obviously!), but it’s really a trap to think about that stuff too much while you’re actually making the book. I am thankful for all awards and recognition I’ve received, but I try to think of them as just pats on the back. What if you don’t win awards next time? What if less people read your book? Will you deem the book bad, or stop creating?

MT: I’m sure Skim’s reviews and awards had a positive impact on the distribution of the book. I’m sure I’ve had more opportunities to write more books since Skim came out, so for that I am very grateful.

Tamaki_Mariko_portraitMariko Tamaki is a writer and performer. Her work includes the novella Cover Me, creative non-fiction collections True Lies and Fake ID, comics Emiko Superstar (with Steve Rolston) and Skim (with Jillian Tamaki), and the young adult novel (You) Set Me On Fire. Visit Mariko Tamaki’s website: Visit Mariko Tamaki’s blog: Follow Mariko Tamaki on Twitter:





tamaki_smJillian Tamaki is a cartoonist and illustrator. Originally from Calgary, Alberta, she now lives in New York City, where she teaches at the School of Visual Arts. She has published two books of personal work and one graphic novel, Skim, with Mariko Tamaki. Visit Jillian Tamaki’s website: Visit Jillian Tamaki’s blog: Check out Jillian’s webcomic: Follow Jillian on Twitter:




Savanna Scott Leslie is an editor and publishing consultant based in Toronto. She has a BA in philosophy and Russian literature from the University of Toronto and a certificate in publishing from Ryerson University.

Published on May 16, 2014

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