How I Wrote It

How Tokyo Digs a Garden grew into an award-winning picture book

The author and illustrator of Tokyo Digs a Garden, Jon-Erik Lappano and Kellen Hatanaka, reflect on how their stunning children's book came to be.
Jon-Erik Lappano wrote and Kellen Hatanaka illustrated Tokyo Builds a Garden. (Robert Scarborough/Kiersten Hatanaka/House of Anansi)

A boy plants seeds and magical things happen. Tokyo Digs a Garden may start with a familiar fairy-tale premise, but the result is a very modern meditation on the natural world. The book won the 2016 Governor General's Literary Award for young people's literature (illustration) and was a finalist for the 2017 TD Canadian Children's Literature Award.

Jon-Erik Lappano and Kellen Hatanaka, the author and illustrator of Tokyo Digs a Garden, reflect on how they grew their children's book from the ground up.

Seeds of inspiration

Jon-Erik Lappano: The idea for the book actually came to me over a decade ago. I was working as a landscaper in Toronto, and there was a designer at the company who was very influenced by Japanese gardening. So as someone gardening in the tiny backyards of Toronto, transforming concrete squares into complete ecosystems, I started daydreaming about a child who plants seeds that overtake a city. 

Then happily, my sister started dating Kellen. He had published two really excellent children's books already, and he was interested in doing something more story-driven. We started talking about Tokyo Digs a Garden

Kellen Hatanaka: It's pretty clear to me still to this day. We were driving, we were in a car, and I'm not sure exactly how the story came up but it was pretty clear that Jon-Erik had thought about it a lot. It was very developed. I really remember at the start of the story the way that the city had eaten the countryside. That was something he said in the very first conversation, and as an illustrator that stuck out for me. It inspired a lot of visual images for me. 

Green light

KH: I knew that I was going to be meeting my publisher soon, so I thought it can't hurt to bring this idea in and see what they think about it. Jon-Erik decided he wanted to get a full working draft together for that meeting, to prove the concept. I actually ended up reading the whole story to them in that meeting, and that was the pitch.

JEL: I wrote the first draft of the book in two sittings. I had the story in my head for all those years. The publisher and I had a few rounds of back-and-forth regarding the draft, but I was quite surprised by the lack of edits. I was also lucky to have access to my target audience at home. When I was working on the first draft, I read it aloud to my daughter Maia, who was two-and-a-half at the time. She was really my first-round editor — I took careful note when she'd lose interest, and that made for swift edits.

A vision blossoms

KH: Unlike Jon-Erik's experience writing the book, the illustration was definitely a long process. It was really important to me to find the balance between going too dark and going too cute. In making those images, I didn't know how I would be able to execute that feeling. But I did have an idea that it was going to just be the volume of plants and vegetation that would do it. I spent a lot of time drawing as many different plants and leaves and trees as I could, and I created a library of sorts that I could draw from. It was definitely one of the longest projects I've worked on to date. 

Part of Kellen Hatanaka's self-made library of plant images. (Image courtesy of Kellen Hatanaka)

JEL: When I saw Kellen's illustrated pages for the first time, I was so happy. It was so vibrant and colourful and unique and strange. I remember thinking, it's his amazing illustration work that's going to make the book stand out. The story in and of itself is a pretty classic setup. You get seeds, you plant the seeds, and something magical happens. But having all that room for Kellen's creative energies to blossom and flourish really took it to the next level. Seeing how he transformed the city, it took it to another realm in my head. The spread that really floored me was where the city is flooded and overtaken with growth. I just loved how he went kind of apocalyptic with it. I was hoping he would do that. He didn't hold back.
 

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