Comics Herstory: Mariko Tamaki
Mariko Tamaki is a Japanese Canadian and Jewish Canadian author who has been publishing graphic novels since 2000. Her two most popular novels, Skim and This One Summer, were co-created with her cousin Jillian Tamaki. Mariko has also written a variety of other works, including fiction novels Cover Me and (You) Set Me on Fire, a book of essays titled Fake ID, and a graphic novel with artist Steve Rolston called Emiko Superstar.
Mariko and Jillian work particularly well together. Both Skim and This One Summer are critically acclaimed. Skim won an Ignatz Award, a Joe Shuster Award, and a Doug Wright Award, which are all awards for excellence and outstanding achievements in comics and cartooning. This One Summer won the Michael L. Printz Award (recognizing best young adult literature), and the Caldecott Honor (recognizing best picture book for children).
However, what makes these two graphic novels special isn’t the recognition, though the recognition isn’t undue. Skim, released in 2008, is set at an all-girls Catholic school in Toronto in 1993. The main character, Kimberly Keiko Cameron, is called “Skim” because “she is not.” The book’s plot is centered on relationships. Part of this involves Skim experiencing a drift away from her best friend, Lisa, but developing feelings of attraction toward an older woman. Some reviewers have argued that little happens in the way of plot, and while Skim isn’t Die Hard, Tamaki subtly conveys the oft-overlooked message that relationships change. Friendships fade. And that’s okay. It’s an important message for younger readers especially to hear.
This One Summer is also a subtle masterpiece. It tells the story of Rose and Windy, two friends who meet at the beach every year. It takes place in summer, a liminal period in which Rose and Windy find themselves suddenly more at odds with each other. Tamaki doesn’t shy away from the hard stuff, broaching uncomfortable topics with Rose’s parents’ frequent disagreements, the difficult secret Rose’s mother has been keeping from her daughter, and, of course, adolescence.
Although Skim, Rose, and Windy are closer to children than adults, Tamaki doesn’t maintain a bubble-like separation between an unrealistically sunshine-filled child’s world and a drab, tax-filled adult world in her novels. Instead, she favors more subtle but realistic emotions. This seems to be partly because the characters are in such transitional points in terms of age in their lives, but also partly because it gives the characters, and therefore the readers, a chance to study the adults through the eyes of a child. They are young, but not without depth, something that is certainly a valuable quality in Tamaki’s writing and an important kind of narrative in the genre.