Author | Photo Reynard Li

Jillian Tamaki on Writing Kids’ Lit, Her Childhood Faves & the Creative Process

Acclaimed Toronto-based illustrator & writer Jillian Tamaki recently clinched a prestigious Governor General’s Literary Award for her illustrated book, They Say BlueThe book follows a young girl “as she contemplates colours in the known and the unknown, in the immediate world and the world beyond what she can see.” With Tamaki’s stunning and imaginative illustrations, this book has earned its place on every child’s nightstand. 

We chatted with Tamaki about the book, writing for kids, and what a day in her life looks like.

SDTC: Knowing that it would be geared towards children, did you have a different approach to coming up with They Say Blue?

JT: I guess young kids were the last demographic I hadn’t made a book for. The final frontier! Actually, one of the humps I had to get over was the idea that I was “writing for children.” The impulse can be to oversimplify or fall back on tropes. I suppose what was different, given that the protagonist is a child, [was that] it was an exercise in trying to think like a child would. In this case, I was trying to be observant and perceptive in that way kids are.

What appeals to you about creating children’s lit?

Well, I find picture books to be a particularly challenging form. Perhaps more than a long graphic novel. It’s such a distilled format, there is so much weight on every word and image. It’s a little nerdy, but I really enjoy picking apart that puzzle.

Another part is engaging with readers–the books you love as a kid and teen stick with you forever. It blows my mind to hear adults tell me SKIM was a formative book for them as a teen. Then I feel old, haha.

What was your fave book as a kid?

I honestly can’t remember a singular favourite, but I loved A Little Princess, The Witches, The Sky is Falling. Incidentally, I remember the tactile qualities of all three of those physical books. The copy of The Sky is Falling was a newly laminated book in my school library, and I would gently crush the cover to get that ASMR-y effect.

With They Say Blue, what came first, the story or the image?

An image! I saw a dance performance choreographed by my friend Sook-Yin Lee, and there was a little kid dancer flipping and flying off the walls. I drew a picture of her in motion when I got home. It dawned on me that idea of movement could be the start of something.

Can you walk us through your process to creating this?

That’s really too big a question and involves lots of fits and starts. From a technical point of view though, I painted the backgrounds with acrylics, scanned them in, and drew the blacks on in the computer.

Walk us through a typical day in your life, from getting up until going to bed?

I’m lucky in that I don’t have to get up with an alarm. My studio is in my house, so to be honest, I kind of roll out of bed into work. I work from like 10:30 a.m. to 7/8/9:00 p.m. I work on my book or do one-off illustration jobs, or paperwork or whatever needs to get done. I take breaks to go to the gym or grocery shopping or get a Tibetan thali for lunch. Right now I’m making a quilt, so I usually pick away at that in the evening while hanging out with my boyfriend. I would say I’m loosely structured but consistent.

Your fave place to unwind/create in Toronto?

Creating and unwinding seem pretty different things to me! But I like to run in High Park and Humber River Valley. And eat in Parkdale, Koreatown and Chinatown. I love walking in the residential neighbourhoods; they are the best parts of Toronto.

What should we be paying more attention to?

Our neighbours! There is an incredible amount of instability in our local communities at the moment. It’s not good for us, individually or as a group. We need to demand more accountability from our elected officials as it pertains to development. It rips my heart out to see our neighbourhoods being treated like investments and not safe places for people.

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