Jillian Tamaki Talks Freedom to Read

February 23, 2018 | Alice

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Jillian and Mariko Tamaki's stellar graphic novel first started making headlines when it won a Governor General's Literary Award, The Caldecott Medal, an Eisner Award, and took Printz honours, among other accolades. Not long after, though, it started getting attention for a very different reason – it was the most challenged book of 2016. 

This One Summer

We caught up with Jillian in time for Freedom to Read Week to talk about that experience. She'll be speaking about it in person on Wednesday evening at Runnymede Branch, but for those of you who can't make it, here is some of what she had to say:

When you started working on This One Summer, did you think the subject matter would be controversial?  

Well, there was a lot of similar content in Skim, our first book, which has been relatively controversy-free. With This One Summer, I think Mariko and I figured we would have a few issues with editors, mostly around some the of the very technical sex terms. (There is no sex, just teenagers talking about sex.) But everything stayed in. This One Summer won some children's literature awards and I think the increased visibility brought around increased controversy, if that makes any sense. It got into places it typically would not have, which was good (broader reach) and bad (elementary school libraries).

You've said you were surprised by the challenges, and suspect that the Caldecott award brought with it a lot of both attention and misunderstanding. Having been through this eye-opening experience, did it make you think differently about the stories you tell and how they might be received? 

When I started making books, I was in the mindset of adult indie comics readers. It was really book publishers who recontextualized our work as YA or children's literature, which I'm grateful for. Being in the youth book world for a while now, obviously I'm more aware of those unspoken parameters. But to be honest, it's not very hard to be "controversial" if you're dealing with girls, women, sex, teenagers, or if queer people exist in your stories.

In the last five years, we've seen graphic novels become a feature of the top ten most challenged lists. How much do you think this is about content vs. the way the visual nature of the works amplifies how content is perceived? Can you say something about your take on the relationship of words to images, images to words?

That's definitely a theory. I don't really know though. Maybe because comics are increasingly popular, or because people still assume all comics are all-ages. But I definitely think there is a vividness of SEEING that makes comics very potent (which is the point!). You literally see kids say and do bad things, get confused, etc. A lot of the books on the challenged/banned lists contain queer characters. In a comic, those individuals are very present, literally taking up space, which is still something sadly some people have a problem with.

What are your feelings on the labelling of certain topics – like LGBTQ issues, sexuality, drug use, etc. – as inappropriate for certain age groups? In your joint statement about the challenge, and further in Mariko's blog post about it, you have both talked about the fact that fully half of the top ten most challenged books in 2016 were challenged for including LGBTQ+ characters (among other things). Can you talk about the increase in representation and accompanying challenges, and why you think it is important to include characters with LGBTQ+ identities?

I think that there is a spectrum of appropriateness. Even very hard topics can be adapted for children, because frankly, many children are dealing with very hard things in life. Not depicting them does not mean they are not there. As with everything, I think it's a case-by-case basis, for both books AND children. The fact of the matter is that there is no "standard" 13-year-old. What is appropriate for one, the other is not ready for. Everyone is free to not read. It just means that you can't restrict access for others.

As far as LGBTQ+ identities: well, I mean, I think book challenges probably reflect the current neuroses of the culture at the time. And right now people are re-examining gender and sexuality in this way that is very threatening to some. 

In that statement, you also talked about children needing the freedom to both explore new things and to see themselves in stories. Was there a book you remember reading as a young person that fed that need to explore or discover yourself, or a story you wish that you had found?

I didn't see a lot of mixed-race people in books very often. And Asian-Americans were (and still are) very underrepresented in North American pop culture. I recently did a review in the NYT for Kit Pearson's The Sky is Falling, which was one of my favourite books as a kid. I re-read it and loved the main character, who is kind of a grumpy little girl that reminded me of myself and maybe I related to back then too. Then I read a few online reviews and a lot of them complained about the main character being sullen and bad-tempered!

The Sky is Falling

Our thanks to Jillian for talking with us.

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