By Edie Ching
Today we’re pleased to welcome Maggie Tokuda-Hall and Yas Imamura to the WNDB blog to discuss their historical picture book Love in the Library, out February 8, 2022! We previously revealed the cover here, with an author’s note from Maggie.
Set in an incarceration camp where the United States cruelly detained Japanese Americans during WWII and based on true events, this moving love story finds hope in heartbreak.
To fall in love is already a gift. But to fall in love in a place like Minidoka, a place built to make people feel like they weren’t human—that was miraculous.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Tama is sent to live in a War Relocation Center in the desert. All Japanese Americans from the West Coast—elderly people, children, babies—now live in prison camps like Minidoka. To be who she is has become a crime, it seems, and Tama doesn’t know when or if she will ever leave. Trying not to think of the life she once had, she works in the camp’s tiny library, taking solace in pages bursting with color and light, love and fairness. And she isn’t the only one. George waits each morning by the door, his arms piled with books checked out the day before. As their friendship grows, Tama wonders: Can anyone possibly read so much? Is she the reason George comes to the library every day? Beautifully illustrated and complete with an afterword, back matter, and a photo of the real Tama and George—the author’s grandparents—Maggie Tokuda-Hall’s elegant love story for readers of all ages sheds light on a shameful chapter of American history.
Interview with Maggie:
Many of your previous books have been rooted in the realm of fantasy. You have said, “I take crumbs of what I do know, expanding them and tightening them until they’re something completely different.” How hard was it to write this book that is rooted in your own family story?
There’s some ease: when you’re writing a true story, a family story, it’s a story you already know, the outline is written.
But the responsibility of telling a true story, one in which the subjects are no longer alive and cannot guide you? It’s a massive undertaking because of that. When I make decisions in my fiction, everything is in service of the story. I’m accountable only to myself. With nonfiction, there’s still all the same craft work to be done, but there’s also this burden of fidelity. And in the case of this story, it’s fidelity that can’t be verified by the subjects. My greatest concern is that George and Tama wouldn’t like it, and I’ll never know. It’s one of those things that wakes me up in the middle of the night. It’s very hard to write a family story, because if you fail you won’t just be letting yourself down, but you’ll be letting them down, too.
How do you move between writing long YA novels and picture books? Is one more difficult than the other?
This question implies a level of discipline that I cannot claim. I write whatever feels good at any given moment.
I will say, one part of my process that they share is that I’ll take years mulling over some idea for both forms. I think largely because I tend to start with an idea of what I want the emotional pitch of the ending to be, and then I work toward that. It can take a while to figure out the right people, the right setting, the right form, the right age group, the right medium, the right tone.
The brevity of picture books is very hard. But I also think there are some people with an incredible instinct for picture books; Melissa Manlove at Chronicle Books has an incredibly unique and auteurist view of them. I can rarely predict what she’ll like, but all her books are wonderful in completely different ways. Adam Rex, Christian Robinson, and Jon Klassan are some creators I admire. I am not one of those people with an instinct for picture books. They tend to take more work for me in revision. I have a lot of picture book manuscripts that will never see publication, and for good reason. Whereas if I can get past the beginning of a novel, it is likely that I will finish it and it will look like the original concept.
What inspired you to write about the Japanese incarceration camps?
Tama and George’s courtship has long been one of my favorite family stories, but it didn’t occur to me to write about it as a standalone story until the presidential election of 2016. As a Jew, and as a Japanese American, I think the Muslim Ban was when I really started thinking in terms of writing as a means of activism. It was hardly a novel notion—to write from a place of anger and moral rectitude—but it didn’t feel any less pressing.
While you set this book in one place, Minidoka, a Japanese incarceration camp in Idaho, it is really the journey of Tama and George to find each other and create a family, reminding us all of love and resilience even in the worst of situations. How did you keep your focus on the positive experience of this story?
I think the real challenge is telling this story and not letting the reader get swept away by the positive angle on it. They managed to fall in love in a place as inhumane and unjust as an incarceration camp. I understand the desire to only think of that part of the story. But it was really important to me that the book not feel overwhelmingly romantic. Doing that would be a disservice to the suffering of so many people. It would also, I think, accidentally send the message that it was worth it. It wasn’t worth it. It was a crime. It was racist.
This is why I am so so grateful that Yas Imamura agreed to illustrate this book. She is one of those people with an instinct for picture books, and was perfect for this one. When I worry about what Tama and George would think, I don’t worry about her work. Her work in this book is masterful. She uses light so brilliantly—where it falls, where it doesn’t, at what point in the narrative it’s stark or subtle. The palette she chose evokes a historical setting and the ascetic living spaces without being dreary. I don’t know how she managed to take something as ugly as the camps and make them so beautiful without losing any honesty. Tonally, she walked that razor’s edge of beauty and tragedy perfectly. I have her to thank for the fact that this story is told at the exact correct emotional pitch.
Do you have a favorite illustration from all of those that Yas Imamura created?
It changes all the time! At first it was the first page because it was exactly how I imagined it when I wrote it. Then it was the two-page spread in which Tama is sitting on the ground imagining all the beautiful things in her books. That illustration is so exquisite that we actually trimmed the text way back because she had rendered it absolutely redundant.
Lately, it’s been the two-page spread in which Tama and George are waiting for the train to take them to the relocation camp. Every person on that page is their own complete person with their own complete personality. But the little touch I find just inexpressibly romantic is that, though Tama and George are in different spots in the line, and facing away from each other, if you moved their figures so that they did face, it would look as though they were leaning into one another, giving comfort in a frightening time. A little visual foreshadowing that I think beautifully answers the final illustration of them together, holding their first son, Floyd.
My point is, all her work is brilliant and all the pages she’s painted for this book are perfect.
Any future plans to continue this story?
I would love to write more about the long-term ripples of Japanese American incarceration, but I won’t do that through George and Tama.
There are other voices right now that really drive home how current the presence of racism as a defining characteristic of American life is. Escucha mi Voz/Hear My Voice is an incredible book collecting the stories of children imprisoned on our border, and if anyone was planning on buying Love in the Library, I would suggest they buy that one, too. Taken together, it’s impossible not to see a very clear pattern.
Interview with Yas:
You remind us constantly that this “love” story is set behind barbed wire beginning with the end pages. How did you keep your focus on the most positive aspects of this story?
The barbed wire endpapers, the makeshift depictions of the camp, and other details of their atrocious reality I actively utilized as a visual vignette around Tama’s character, being unabashed with the bad to highlight Tama’s enduring optimism. It would only shine so bright in the dark.
Can you tell us about the choices you made within your art style to bring these characters and their story to life?
I played around with the looser qualities of watercolor, how it tends to darken and create uneven texture, adding more interesting notes to what would otherwise be a very neutral earth-color palette. I wanted to embody the same shifting tones in Tama and George, in their clothing, their expressions, and I wanted to use the traditional medium to be a bit more dynamic as they interact with their environment: the light filtering from the library window, through curtains and makeshift spaces. I think light is a very useful tool in creating real intimate moments.
Can you describe your choices of layout for the illustrations, some filling an entire page and others almost a snapshot with a white background?
The layouts that end up as spreads are very easy to spot for me; they quite literally could only be painted in a luxurious, sprawling manner. The choice between vignette or full-page really comes down to more of a subtle intuition for me. I love to be able to use white space effectively into a scene, like a natural part of the extension of a background.
But oftentimes, the scene needs to dictate the concept, and sometimes the manuscript dictates a more detailed depiction, a full color or a darkly-lit staging. I’m not too keen on two full-pages next to each other. I really love mixing them up.
How many drafts of the illustrations did you create and did you have any contact with the author when you were working on them?
I did a few character sketches of Tama and George, and a few rounds of sketch revisions. I was very pleased to share the early sketches with Maggie and seeing her gush over them really encouraged me as an illustrator to keep pushing the style.
The use of linework is very important in these illustrations. How did you vary it to increase the emotional impact of each illustration?
A lot of the line detailing here is rendered in color pencil. I wanted it purposely imperfect and hand-drawn-looking to make it feel more intimate. Doing variations of these in color pencil and sometimes watercolor strokes in the blanket patterns, curtains, clothing, I hope created a dimension to these pages that feels more personal and deliberate.
Why was this an impactful story for you to illustrate?
I always relish a good love story, but mostly also because of how Tama and George found comfort in each other in an oppressive situation in a way that’s both unique to their own personal experiences but also a natural extension of the larger tapestry of the enduring human experience. I cannot help but be a part of it.
Do you have a favorite illustration?
I love the spread of her in the library, with all the amazing stories unfolding in front of her.
Maggie Tokuda-Hall is the author of Also an Octopus, illustrated by Benji Davies; The Mermaid, The Witch and The Sea; Squad, illustrated by Lisa Sterle; and Love in the Library, illustrated by Yas Imamura, with more books forthcoming. She lives in Oakland, California with her husband, son, and objectively perfect dog.
Yas Imamura is the illustrator of The Very Oldest Pear Tree by Nancy I. Sanders, Winged Wonders by Meeg Pincus, and other books for children. She lives in Portland, Oregon.
Edie Ching, a former school librarian, now teaches courses for librarians in the I School at the University of Maryland. She is an active member of Capitol Choices and former president of the Washington Children’s Book Guild. She has served on the Newbery, Caldecott, and Notable Children’s Book Committees and will serve on the 2023/24 Coretta Scott King Jury.