In April, the American Library Association released its annual list of the books most often challenged in the United States. Topping that list was This One Summer, a Canadian graphic novel about two preteen girls vacationing in Ontario’s cottage country. The book earned a number of prestigious citations—including a Caldecott Honor and the 2015 Eisner Award for best graphic novel—but its unflinching look at adolescence didn’t sit well with everyone. Libraries in Florida and Minnesota pulled the book off their shelves after parents complained about its mature themes.
Of the 10 titles on the ALA’s list, half have “LGBT content” listed as a factor in their having been challenged; “sex education” and “offensive political viewpoint” are among the other reasons. Considering where these challenges have taken place—it’s a roughly even split between schools and public libraries—when a book does get removed, it might as well no longer exist as far as its intended readership is concerned.
“When you talk about a challenge, you’re talking about access to an audience that might not be able to buy books, or they’re kids,” says Toronto-based illustrator Jillian Tamaki, who created This One Summer with her cousin, author Mariko Tamaki. “They don’t know who you are, you know? They’re not following your Twitter feed. It’s a different kind of interfacing with your work. If they’re denied access to it, you’re getting cut off from an institution, and by default a larger group of people.”
The undaunted Tamaki is currently at work on a children’s book, due out next spring. She’s also hitting the road to promote her most recent graphic novel, Boundless, which will be published on May 30 by Montreal’s Drawn & Quarterly.
A collection of stories—some new, some published previously—Boundless explores themes of consciousness and identity, of individuality and community. The central character of “1.Jenny”, for instance, compulsively follows a copy of herself that appears on a mirror version of Facebook. The duplicate Jenny’s life starts to diverge from that of the original, who watches it unfold with a mixture of obsession, annoyance, envy, and, finally, schadenfreude.
“I am extremely fascinated by the curation that happens online,” Tamaki says. “The way one curates one’s feed speaks so much to the hopes and dreams, aspirations, and desires of an individual. I had just moved away from New York, where I had lived for 10 years, so all my closest friends, their main contact with me was through Instagram and stuff. I was just so aware of the image I was trying to present, which was of being okay, and being happy, and being fascinated by my environment. I think I was those things, but it was definitely a message. All of that was messaging.
“So, what if the message was to oneself? What would be revealed in that person that’s receiving the message? And it wasn’t pretty. She [Jenny] has a very ugly reaction to what she sees, which was somebody else’s happiness—which is not a very flattering thing. And you’re never supposed to show what’s unflattering on social media.”
Tamaki goes decidely more low-tech in the book’s title story, eavesdropping on the inner monologues of various small living things, including a spider and a bird. Their feelings—from existential dread to a sense of literally boundless freedom—are rooted in human emotion, making these creatures tiny stand-ins for people.
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.” For her part, Tamaki doesn’t pretend to know what’s going on inside the mind of a squirrel.
“We have a hard enough time trying to understand different cultures,” she says. “I’ve only travelled in Asia as an adult, but I was just aware, especially in Japan, ‘I’m, like, breaking rules I don’t even know exist.’ You know what I mean? I’m not even aware of them. They’re just there and I don’t even perceive them. I think that that story is about perception, and navigation, perhaps, and trying to imagine the different ways that we all sort of navigate through the world—and they’re kind of unknowable to people outside of yourself or your group or whatever.”
Given her fascination with the interactions between our internal and external selves, you might well wonder if Tamaki believes in the soul, that intangible, incorporeal spark that allegedly separates a living being from a lump of clay.
“How would you ever be able to definitively know?” she asks. “The only logical stance I feel I can take is to say I don’t know. I don’t think that our society says ‘I don’t know’ enough. We feel like we always have to have an opinion and have a definitive answer or be educated on a topic, when you actually can just say ‘I don’t know.’ ”
That’s a stance that thin-skinned parents who find copies of This One Summer in their local public libraries would be well-advised to adopt.
Jillian Tamaki appears at the Vancouver Public Library Central Branch on Wednesday (May 24), along with fellow cartoonist Guy Delisle, as part of the Vancouver Writers Fest’s Incite series.