Cousins team up in coming-of-age tale
For those who grew up in Ontario, spending a weekend at “the cottage” is as Canadian an endeavour as pulling into Tim Hortons for a doughnut and double-double.
But for those born and bred in Calgary, summer pilgrimages to the lake — and the near religious devotion with which they are undertaken — may seem a bit strange. The concept was certainly alien to Calgary-raised illustrator Jillian Tamaki, who needed to take a few fact-finding tours deep into Muskoka territory with her Ontario-born cousin, Mariko Tamaki, to prepare for their graphic novel, This One Summer.
“I had to see the place for myself,” says Jillian, on the phone from a tour stop in Toronto. “You can get some impression from Google or Flickr or whatever, but it’s not quite the same. As I talk to people who have read the book now and are from that area, it is kind of a very specific thing that I really hadn’t experienced first hand.”
This One Summer takes place in the fictional town of Awago Beach, but it should be instantly familiar to those who spent lazy summer weekends in that strange parallel universe of cottage country.
For Tamaki, who now lives in Brooklyn, there were deeper elements that stood out beyond the fresh air, flip-flops, picnic tables and rustic cottages.
Specifically there was the gap between those who spent summers in these strange small towns and those who lived there year round.
“Two people can view a place in two completely different ways even though you are looking at the same thing,” Jillian says. “It’s kind of an interesting idea for me because it all depends on your context and your state-of-mind and your point of view. It’s a rural town and you’re just dropping in. You turn left, they turn right and it’s really segregated in that way. What is this place like in the winter? There is something very Shangri-La-ish about it. It’s not a real place for somebody who is a tourist or a resort vacationer. It kind of exists as a fantasy because you don’t view the whole spectrum of the place.”
Which is not to say that This One Summer has one of those townie-versus-tourist narratives. If there is a deeper examination of class, it hides beneath a simple coming-of-age tale that follows Rose and her cottage buddy Windy over one eventful summer. The two teens interact with Awago Beach young locals, who have their own considerable dramas to contend with, as Rose’s parents work through a troubled patch in their marriage.
The book is a followup to Skim, the Governor General Awardnominated graphic novel the cousins created in 2008 about an all-girl Catholic school in Toronto.
As with that book, Mariko wrote the story to This One Summer like a play and left plenty of creative space for Jillian’s illustrations, which expertly and beautifully conjure up a summer of confusion, wonder and lost innocence.
“We are very interested in a lot of the same topics,” Jillian says. “She’s a very good collaborator, she lets me add my own content in a visual way and is very trusting of the decisions that I make. I think we have the same interests in terms of themes and ideas and who these people are and we are also not interested in making a certain type of book, which is very moralizing and straight-up.”
While This One Summer isn’t autobiographical, Mariko did call upon her own experience growing up in Toronto and spending weekends at the cottage. This was not something her cousin knew much about, but Jillian’s style as an illustrator nicely aligns with Mariko’s interest in chronicling coming-of-age stories for girls.
“I’m very interested in showing realistic depictions of girls and women,” Jillian says. “Not as any sort of manifesto, but I think it’s a good thing to have a diversity of experience and feminist themes in books, especially if they are going to be read by young people. It’s also sort of a ripe time as well. It’s just a very interesting time where a lot happens. It could be hard to make a book about my life now, which is pretty stable and just involves working a lot. Where at that point, everything is in flux, everything is changing and everything is very emotional and you don’t understand it. That makes it a very rich time to mine.”
Mariko and Jillian didn’t spend all that much time together when they were coming of age. It wasn’t until Jillian left her Lake Bonavista home to go to Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., that the two began to hang out with each other. That eventually led to a working relationship.
Jillian is currently a freelance illustrator whose work has appeared in the New York Times and The New Yorker. She has published her own comics and currently teaches at New York’s School of Visual Art. Both Skim and This One Summer have received praise from critics and peers. But Jillian shrugs off any suggestion that the Tamakis are breaking new ground in comics for young people.
“If people think that we do it competently, that’s all I hope for to be honest,” she says with a laugh. “I’ve only been doing this for 10 years. I still have a lot to learn. I hope I make better books. I don’t think about pushing the form forward in any way. I think it’s hard enough to tell a good story that people care about and create characters that people care about. To me, that’s so impossible-seeming and difficult, I just worry about that.”
Cousins Mariko Tamaki, left, and Jillian Tamaki collaborated on the graphic novel, This One Summer.
This One Summer Jillian and Mariko Tamaki Groundwood books