Books·How I Wrote It

Jillian Tamaki's picture book They Say Blue uses colour to explore the world through a child's eyes

Jillian Tamaki spoke to CBC Books about what she imagined when writing and illustrating her picture book, They Say Blue.

'I'm really trying to evoke sensory feeling as opposed to just conceptual ideas.'

Is water blue? The sea looks blue, yet if you cup it in your hands, it's as clear as glass.

This is one of several simple, yet profound questions Jillian Tamaki's mind-weaving children's book, They Say Blue, conjures. She recently appeared on a segment of CBC Kids Book Club to discuss the book. 

They Say Blue follows a young girl in nature as she contemplates the colours she can see in the immediate world and those just beyond her grasp. Through stunning illustrations, Tamaki's first children's picture book is a vivid exploration of how perception colours truth. 

Tamaki is an award-winning illustrator and comics artist. She won the 2021 Eisner Award for young readers for her picture book Our Little Kitchen

The Calgary-born artist twice won the Governor General's Literary Award for young people's literature — illustration, in 2018 for They Say Blue and in 2014 for her work in the YA graphic novel This One Summerwritten by her cousin and graphic novelist Mariko Tamaki.

The cousins are well-known for their first collaboration in 2014, Skim, and teamed up again to create the new graphic novel Roaming, set to be published in 2023. Jillian Tamaki's other books include graphic novels Boundless and SuperMutant Magic Academy

Tamaki spoke to CBC Books about what she pulled from in her own life to create They Say Blue

Colouring your perception 

"On the surface, it's a conceptual book about colours, seasons and nature. However, the bigger theme is one of observation, perception and processing what you see and what you know. 

"This book was written in the Trump years, so it's also about questioning what we believe to be true. Things that I thought were very set in stone are not set in stone or resolved. Obviously, that's not explicitly in the book. But just calling into question what we know and how everybody's perception and outlook on the world is coloured by their circumstances. 

The book is somewhat inspired by children. Kids don't take what they know for granted.

"What colour is the sky? Blue is always going to be the default answer to that, but it's not true always. In fact, it might not be true most days. It's going to be dark sometimes. It's going to be pink or grey. So even these extremely fundamental sayings are actually more complex than the face of it. 

"The book is somewhat inspired by children. Kids don't take what they know for granted. They don't have that bank of knowledge and answers already built in so they're naturally more questioning."

WATCH | Jillian Tamaki recently appeared on CBC Kids Book Club to discuss They Say Blue

Prairie nostalgia 

"I grew up in Calgary, so there is a prairie sensibility in [the book]. I haven't lived there in 20 years. It's typical of a lot of people — as a teenager they want to get out of their hometown as they find it boring.

"As I get older, I have more appreciation for it. I find that landscape extremely comforting and beautiful. The crows in the last image of the book are very specific to the west. It's coloured by a little bit of my own childhood nostalgia. 

There is a lot of value in being bored, especially for children, that involved becoming playful and becoming observant. It's survival.

"I grew up riding horses and spending a lot of time in the country outside of Calgary, which involved driving a lot. There is so much driving in the prairies across fields. The image of the kid getting off the bus and walking by the field is just baked into the imagery of what I think about in terms of: what is a landscape? What is a field? What is a tree? 

"There is a lot of value in being bored, especially for children, that involves becoming playful and becoming observant. It's survival."

LISTEN | Jillian Tamaki takes the Proust Questionnaire

The cartoonist and illustrator shares her idea of perfect happiness and more...
An interior image from They Say Blue by Jillian Tamaki. (Jillian Tamaki/Groundwood Books)

Creating from the gut 

"A lot of my work pulls on the senses. I'm really trying to evoke sensory feeling as opposed to just conceptual ideas.

"It usually starts with: what do I want to draw? What would be fun? It would be fun to draw a girl turning into a tree. It would be fun to use materials in this way. I had seen a dance performance choreographed by my friend and one of the dancers was a small girl who was so kinetic and was running around and jumping off the walls. 

I'm really trying to evoke sensory feeling as opposed to just conceptual ideas.

"I did a drawing of a girl in motion after the performance, inspired by this kid, when I was trying to fish around for this book idea. There's a spread of her throwing water in the air. It's just fun to follow a picture like that.

"To be honest, it's not like I have a lot of deep things I must say that are all polemic. Most of the time, it's, 'What do I want to draw? What will sustain me for a year because these books take a bajillion hours to do? What is not going to drive me up the wall? What kind of characters do I want to spend time with?' Those are more important questions for me personally.

"Instinct is all I ever work from. I am a completely instinctual artist. You have to go with your gut."

Tamaki's comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

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