Betwixt & between
Review by Gordon Bowness
gordonbowness.com, May 9, 2014
Mortifying. So much of life is mortifying when you’re a preteen, between the age of 10 and, say, 14 years, a tween. Your body is going through bewildering changes. You’re developing sexual attractions. You are experimenting with new ways of being. Your childhood friendships are being tested. The adult world of choice and responsibility is fast approaching, and adults, too, are on your case with a new intensity.
Nobody captures the profound ookiness of adolescence better than writer Mariko Tamaki and illustrator Jillian Tamaki -- nor the profound joys.
The Tamaki cousins are the creators of Skim, an amazing graphic novel from 2008 which placed on the New York Times’ top-10 list of illustrated kids book. Their follow-up, again with Groundwood Books, is This One Summer, a pitch-perfect rendering of two months in the life of two young friends.
Rose and Windy are summertime best buddies; for years, their families have had cottages near each other in the small beach community of Awago. But this one summer, the 18-month age difference between the girls begins to loom large. Rose, the older girl and the novel’s protagonist, is anticipating the arrival of breasts and her first boyfriend; the younger Windy is addicted to sugar and blithely unselfconscious. Rose’s parents are fighting, her mother is tense and unhappy; Rose always lurks in a doorway, listening unobserved to her parents’ troubles, desperate for understanding. Windy senses the growing distance between them and is jealous of her friend’s new-found attraction to boys, and one boy in particular, Dunc, a local whose own halting steps toward manhood propels the crisis of the novel.
Toronto’s Mariko Tamaki is a writer, filmmaker and performer with numerous published works including the young adult novel (You) Set Me on Fire. Jillian Tamaki, now living in Brooklyn, is an illustrator whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Walrus and numerous other magazines. Together, the Tamakis form an amazing team: Sometimes Mariko’s text carries the narrative, sometimes Jillian’s images do; the interplay is nothing short of miraculous. Sound effects from one scene can creep into the next like an echo of a harsh word; half a day can go by wordlessly over 30 panels; a girl’s dance is captured with multiple stop-frames in one panel. Mariko knows how to keep a narrative driving forward through youthful passive aggressiveness. Jillian’s line work and shading in basic blue-violet are incredibly accomplished and evocative. You get inside these characters. You sense their confusion and hope. You can smell the fresh air and lake breezes.
Skim was shortlisted for a number of young adult literary awards, and This One Summer should do as well or better in the young adult or kids markets. But it’s almost a disservice to use those categories. The book is a mature and keenly observed rendering of that magical but familiar in-between place, a summer holiday, on the cusp of adulthood, where a parent’s embrace still means the world. Young or old, who doesn’t want to go there?
TCAF The Tamakis are at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival running 9am to 5pm on Sat, May 10 and 11am to 5pm on Sun, May 11 at the Toronto Reference Library (789 Yonge St). The cousins have a special launch event for This One Summer at 7pm to 9pm on Sun, May 11 at Buddies in Bad Times (12 Alexander St). torontocomics.com.