Letters from Abroad: Illustrator Yoko Tanaka

One thing science fiction and fantasy and children’s literature have in common is a very strong fine arts, illustration component. I wanted to write today, then, about what it is like, as an author, to have one’s novel illustrated, and also to talk about illustrator Yoko Tanaka.

Collaboration is very central to children’s books. An author like me doesn’t work alone—no, I take that back, I do work alone (see below). What I mean is that my debut novel (The Witch’s Guide to Cooking with Children) is the creation of two minds: the words mine; the illustrations—and although it is a novel, with chapters, it has quite a lot of illustrations—are drawn by Yoko Tanaka.

Sparrow Girl CoverI am a big jazz fan (I often go down to see local students from the conservatorium in Vienna play open sessions in a cellar cafe) and I think jazz—and music in general—is a good way to see this issue. Because collaboration is at the heart of music. Jazz musicians support each other, they back each other up, they play off each other’s ideas, and, importantly, when things are going well, they seem to drive each other to new heights of expression.

Collaboration is also at the heart of children’s books (at least those for younger children).

But it works very differently. There is absolute separation between the author and illustrator.

The author is not allowed to contact the illustrator at all while the illustrator draws the illustrations (and vice versa). Not just no comments, but not even a hello or thank you.

You might think this would be upsetting to the author. But I found it to be an excellent rule. Because I believe an illustrator is sure to do her best work when she is allowed to follow her artistic vision without comments from the not-an-artist-in-the-least author. When one looks at Yoko’s paintings, one sees a masterful mind at work—a mind with intense focus and a singular vision. I can imagine the main thought she has in her mind while creating a new work: Please don’t interrupt me now!

Theodesia CoverEverything Yoko needed to know was already in the text, and one incredible thing to me is how closely she followed the text down to tiny details nobody but I would notice (besides her). Such as the trellis one can just see through the main character Sol’s bedroom window—a trellis he himself will notice later and, even later, climb down. Or the father’s giraffe pajamas.

Somehow Yoko was able to illustrate the book literally, to draw what exists in the text, and simultaneously to imagine what kind of world Sol and Connie live in, a world where there is a witch who eats children next door! But also a world with a sense of humor, an oddly lighthearted—or at least kindhearted—world.

I find I have reached this point in my story without having mentioned some important facts about Yoko Tanaka. She is also the illustrator of Newbery Medal winner Kate DiCamillo’s new book, The Magician’s Elephant,  and of the new picture book, Sparrow Girl, with Sara Pennypacker (of Clementine fame—if you don’t know who Clementine is, ask any eight-year-old), among other great books. That she read my manuscript when it was sent to her and agreed at once to illustrate it was a great honor.

Witch's Guide CoverTo get a real sense for Yoko Tanaka’s art, it is best I think to go straight to her fine art paintings, which can be seen at her website YokoTanaka.com. Even better, her art is showing in Denver, opening November 21st, at the David B. Smith Gallery.  If I were in Denver, I’d definitely check out the show.

You can also see a couple of the illustrations she did for The Witch’s Guide to Cooking with Children on my own website: Keithbooks.com/Yoko. In closing, I would like to say that when I first saw Yoko Tanaka’s opening illustration of the book’s hero Sol, with his very long hair, reading in his bedroom, I was like, Wow, that’s just how I looked when I was young.

And I simultaneously realized that Sol was, in some ways, me, and that it took  Yoko Tanaka imagining him in her own mind—her own vision—for me to see that.


Keith McGowan is the debut author of The Witch’s Guide to Cooking with Children, illustrated by Yoko Tanaka. The Witch’s Guide to Cooking with Children was named an “inspired recommendation for children” by independent bookstores nationwide. Keith McGowan is published by Christy Ottaviano Books, Henry Holt & Company.

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