Critics agreed. Skim landed on year-end lists of the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, and Q&Q. Among its accolades: the Ignatz Award for best graphic novel and the Doug Wright Award for best book. When Mariko was nominated alone for the Governor General’s Literary Award, Seth and Chester Brown wrote an open letter – signed by other comics stalwarts such as Lynda Barry and Art Spiegelman – to the Canada Council for the Arts, expressing disappointment that Tamaki’s contribution had been overlooked by an outdated prize system that seemingly didn’t understand the symbiotic relationship between words and images in graphic novels.
“The text of a graphic novel cannot be separated from its illustrations because the words and the pictures together are the text,” the letter read. “Try to imagine evaluating Skim if you couldn’t see the drawings. Jillian’s contribution to the book goes beyond mere illustration: she was as responsible for telling the story as Mariko was.”
Tamaki modestly downplays the fact that some of North America’s foremost cartoonists stood up for her, but feels the resulting discussion was productive. In the six years since Skim was released, she has observed a slow but positive shift in how the publishing world views the role of art in graphic novels as more than just window-dressing. (Mariko calls Tamaki’s illustrations “another turn of the storytelling process.”) Although the Governor General’s Literary Awards has not officially changed its policy on how to treat graphica, the Tamakis’ follow-up, 2014’s This One Summer (Groundwood), was nominated for both its text and illustrations, with Tamaki receiving the illustration award – the first graphic novelist to do so.
Three years in the making, with a year dedicated to the final art, This One Summer marked ambitious creative growth for the cousins. From the onset, they knew they were pitching a graphic novel with a complex narrative structure for a YA audience. This time, instead of Mariko handing off the script to Tamaki, the two worked closely in the early stages, writing and rewriting the story of Rose and Windy, two preteen pals on family vacation at summer cottages, coping with first loves, family drama, and the pain of leaving childhood behind. Tamaki’s art, with its lush beach scenery, is suffused with nostalgia, though cottaging was never part of her upbringing (she took a trip to Muskoka, Ontario, while working on the book, to get a feel for the experience). Much attention has been paid to the book’s melancholic indigo palette, which Tamaki says was added late in the process. (She prefers “the puzzle of working in black, white, and grey.”) Significantly, she captures the sensory experience of those summer-long vacations: how perception of time changes; the thrill of newfound freedom; the lazy stretches of boredom; and the sugar-addled highs resulting from frequent candy stops at the local convenience store.
In November, This One Summer won the 2015 Caldecott Honor for “distinguished picture books” (the first graphic novel to do so) and the Michael L. Printz Honor, given to the best YA literature. The American Library Association presents both prizes, known as the Pulitzers of kids’ books. Beyond the fact that the recognition guarantees nearly every library in the U.S. will purchase the title, providing Tamaki with some financial stability (along with her $25,000 GG purse), she is most pleased that the award comes from librarians, whom she considers the ultimate kidlit experts.
“It’s a big endorsement,” says Groundwood’s Barry. “There’s nothing that guarantees success in the book business these days, but this suggests you’re going to go on and have a major career.”