With her first picture book, Jillian Tamaki displays a mastery of the form along with a sensitive understanding of the imaginative life of a small child. Tamaki is best known as the illustrator of the graphic novels Skim and This One Summer, which were written by her cousin Mariko Tamaki. Creating her own text for They Say Blue, Tamaki turns her attention to a younger audience.
In a stream-of-consciousness reverie, the child character (who looks to be about six years old) wonders if a blue whale is actually blue and what crows are thinking. Tamaki captures the emotional rhythms of a child’s day, from the exhilaration of tossing water up into sunlight to make diamonds to the quietness of feeling your blood moving around your body to the wildness of the playground. The child is not a stock character, but rather particular and authentic. Many of the child’s observations involve colour – the grey of storm clouds, white snow against a white sky – and Tamaki uses acrylics to produce the effect both of watercolour and of fingerpainting. Energy and movement are a big part of Tamaki’s comics, but this subtle colour is a real treat.
Parents and other adults will welcome the author’s invitation for child participation, which includes plenty of room for young readers or listeners to ask questions, initiate discussion, and make their own narrative choices. In one scene, the child is delighting in a joyful fantasy about sailing a boat through the grass. We turn the page and she’s trudging home, discouraged, as the school bus pulls away. The question of what happened on the ride home is surprisingly left up to the reader.
Best of all, Tamaki creates a protagonist with autonomy as we see the child move from received knowledge to confidence in her own perceptions: “They say the sea is blue. But when I hold the water in my hands, it’s as clear as glass.”