Mariko Tamaki’s skill at portraying the queer teenage experience has earned her many awards, including the Michael L. Printz Award and a Caldecott Honor for This One Summer (illustrated by Jillian Tamaki) and Eisner Awards for Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me (illustrated by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell). Her unflinching approach to telling these stories has also landed her books on challenge lists. Tamaki took some time after her session at January’s LibLearnX conference to talk with American Libraries about her latest book Cold (Roaring Brook Press, February), her new comics imprint Surely Books, and what it’s like having her works contested.
Your new book, Cold, is about two teenagers: the ghost of a boy and a girl who wants to solve his murder. What drew you to writing your first murder mystery? I’ve always loved reading mysteries, but the element of suspense wasn’t something I had ever focused on in prose. After a few years of writing superhero comics and working on the “ticking clock” in that medium, I thought it would be interesting to do that in a novel. A lot of things I write start off as a test of myself and then turn into a full-on obsession.
Collaboration is a big part of creating graphic novels and comics. How does it compare with the process of writing alone? All writing involves collaboration. I have been fortunate to work with amazing illustrators, colorists, and letterers, not to mention incredible editors who have labored with me on both comics scripts and prose books. A graphic novel is a creative work created by two people. My main job as the writer is to make sense and then to be as supportive as possible while the illustrator does the heavy lifting. The difference between novels and comics is that with novels, there’s such a density of things to keep track of. Which is maybe why I write such short novels.
You recently became curator of Abrams’s Surely Books imprint, which focuses on bringing more LGBTQIA voices into comics. What are your hopes for the imprint? I hope the legacy of this imprint is incredible work by diverse artists and writers whom I have learned so much from. Our first book, Lifetime Passes, by Terry Blas and Claudia Aguirre, is a hard candy shell covering a sweet story, and it is so different from our second—the very complex and compelling story that is Flung Out of Space, by Grace Ellis and Hannah Templer. As a curator, looking at what kinds of stories queer creators want to tell and how they choose to tell them gives me a glimpse of what queer comics are and can be.
Book challenges are making the news again, with a particular focus on those that address race and queer experiences. Some of your books are frequently challenged. What advice do you have for teens whose access to these books is limited? I find book challenges frustrating as they play out in public because it is a conversation about books instigated by a group of people who mostly do not read the books they are challenging. I have had amazing conversations about subjects like race, class, gender, and sexuality with people who have read these books. So I would say to kids, “Keep having those conversations. Challenge people who challenge books.”
What are you working on now? I have a project for DC Comics, and I’ve started my next murder mystery. I’ve got a graphic novel with Jillian Tamaki coming out at some point and a queer retelling of Anne of Green Gables coming out sooner. So stay tuned.