Other than when they are written by actual children (which happens, sometimes), novels about childhood are essentially works of historical fiction. Once you grow up, youth becomes the territory of the distant past. Some authors feel their way blindly back to this strange territory, filling their stories with borrowed props and slang in the hope that doing so will make it all seem real. The best writers, however, rely more on empathy and imagination, and approach childhood not as a set of poses and cultural signifiers, but as a hugely complicated and dynamic world unto itself – one that is contiguous with that of adults, but utterly distinct.
Cousins Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki (the former a writer in Toronto, the latter a Calgary-raised illustrator now living in New York City) did an astonishingly good job of inhabiting the world of childhood in their first collaboration, the 2008 graphic novel Skim. That book landed on many best-of-the-year lists (including Q&Q’s). It was also nominated for a Governor General’s Literary Award, though only for the text. As many pointed out at the time, the idea of separating the words from the images in Skim was absurd; the contributions of its two creators were seamless.
Their most recent collaboration effortlessly tops the achievement of Skim. While the earlier book had its heavy emotional weather in the foreground, This One Summer floats along on a warm breeze, drifting through scenes that seem at first trivial and relentlessly quotidian, even as they quietly build tension. When the storm finally appears, the drenching is that much more powerful. This is the kind of book that is not about childhood so much as its essence, captured in all its messy torment and joy.
The subtle brilliance of the book begins with its title – “this one summer” is exactly how a young person might situate a story in time – and is reinforced in the opening pages, when the narration starts: “Okay. So. Awago Beach is this place. Where my family goes every summer. Ever since… like… forever.” Immediately, Mariko has caught the awkward lilt of kid-speak. These words accompany a quickly shifting array of images that place us squarely in the story’s setting: somewhere in Ontario’s cottage country, in the era of Justin Bieber.
Rose Wallace, the narrator, is a skinny and slightly dreamy blonde girl around 12 years old. The friend she hangs out with every summer at the cottage is Windy, a chunkier, motor-mouthed, slightly younger girl who loves to gorge on sugar and make jokes about boobs. The two girls spend their cottage days eating candy, swimming, and renting R-rated horror movies from the community’s one convenience store. They become mildly obsessed with the ongoing soap opera unfolding among a small group of teens who hang out at the store, and Rose finds herself attracted to Dunc, the older boy who works behind the counter and may have gotten his girlfriend pregnant.
Meanwhile, something is going on with Rose’s parents. Her dad is a loveable goof who wears Leafs jerseys, sings along with Rush tunes, and cracks corny jokes. Her quiet, brittle mother is clearly unhappy. She is constantly working, and has a thing about not going swimming. This eventually leads to a bitter fight with her visiting sister and brother-in-law, following which Rose’s dad returns to the city and her mother retires to the couch. (We soon learn that the mother’s depression is related to her efforts to have another child.)
So much of This One Summer feels organic; it’s almost impossible to spot the moments when a particular plotline is being pushed forward. Wordless images of Rose swimming alone carry as much import as busy scenes of teen drama or adult acrimony. Mariko’s dialogue inhabits different emotional and generational registers without breaking a sweat or falling into melodrama.
Jillian’s illustrations are engrossing and masterful. Like a film director who wants her audience to forget the camera, she mostly avoids look-at-me extreme angles and quirky framing – an overhead beach scene presented over two spreads is a rare, breathtaking exception. The real genius of the illustration is how the characters are depicted. Each figure in the book is distinct and memorable, no one is conventionally or blandly attractive, and only one or two minor characters even approach caricature. These are people you’ve seen, spoken to, stood in line with.
Together, the Tamakis have created a quiet masterpiece – one that, with its frictionless blending of light and dark and its deep understanding of childhood, is reminiscent of Japanese animation giant Hayao Miyazaki’s films. Contrary to its title, This One Summer is timeless.