From Brooklyn-based illustrator and muralist Katie Yamasaki comes a gentle, warm children’s story, When the Cousins Came, about sharing and celebrating our differences. For multiracial children it may come as a rare and illuminating chance to see themselves reflected in a story – but without race having to occupy the center of attention. Our protagonist, young Lila, is excited to meet her cousins from the city, Rosie and Takeo. Their hair looks different, and they can do cool – and maybe even intimidating – things like skateboard and eat noodles with chopsticks. Lila says, “everything the cousins did was a little bit extra special.”
She too shares her particular strengths, bravely venturing outside to catch fireflies, and carefully planning a camping trip, but can’t help feeling left out of Rosie and Takeo’s world sometimes. It’s then when the cousins reach out to Lila and remind her how special her world is, too. Yamasaki’s illustrations are bright and colorful and allow us to see the differences within Lila’s family, as simple as shades of skin and textures of hair, without going out of the way to explain or label exactly what kind of background anyone has. Within this story, we can experience a comforting place where differences aren’t examined in order to divide, but seen and celebrated.
IE: When you were a child, did you feel that being part of a multiracial family was unusual or special?
Katie Yamasaki: I always felt it was special that my family was diverse. I was lucky that my earliest memories about being from a diverse family were positive and I felt that our differences were a positive thing. My sister sat next to someone on her first day of school who said he didn’t want to sit by “no Jap.” I was lucky that wasn’t my earliest experience in school.
On my mom’s side, it was imbedded from my grandparent’s generation that differences were wonderful. On my father’s Japanese side, the family experienced incredible structural and institutionalized discrimination and persevered, which I think imbued later generations with pride and resiliency. That was passed down to my parent’s generation and then on to us. We grew up in a conservative, working-class, car factory town that was not diverse. Although we had many wonderful friends there, we were also periodically the targets of anti-Japanese behavior at school. Even with that, I always knew that the discriminatory behavior was ignorant and being different made us special.
IE: How did the adults in your childhood teach you about differences? How do you address them as an adult with the children in your life now?
KY: I don’t think that the adults in my life when I was a child spoke about difference with the same language that we use now, but they filled our lives with an incredibly deep community composed of people of diverse races, religions and socio-economic stations in life. They didn’t judge people and that is what they taught us. Also, within the context of my own family, to be multi-racial was the norm. So even if we did feel insulted or isolated at school, we always had our family and extended community who knew us and loved us and understood us.
Now, as an adult, with my daughter or with anyone I encounter, I think I experience difference as the norm. We certainly have evolved language for speaking about difference and for allowing people to self identify, rather than to be put into someone else’s boxes. It matters to me that we live in a place where people look different from us and each other, practice different religions and have all different kinds of jobs, families and orientations. I would expect that my daughter grows with an understanding of the world as a place that is full of people who look, speak, express, identify differently from her and from each other. And when everyone gets to be themselves and feel safe, our world is a better place.
IE: What drew you to children’s book illustration and mural painting, respectively? What do you see as their strengths when it comes to the stories you want to tell?
KY: I went to college planning to study social work. When I started drawing, I was 19. I was terrible, but I loved it so much. I loved how it felt and I loved how it made me look differently at the world around me. I loved it enough to not worry about how bad my drawings looked compared to everyone else’s during critiques. That said, I knew I wanted to do something meaningful with my life and I had the notion that art was more of a lonely, self-serving endeavor.
I was also very intimidated by the artistic achievement in my family and didn’t think that I could step into that arena. I didn’t know how I could be useful in the world making art. I knew clearly what I loved doing, but couldn’t figure out how to do it in a way that extended far beyond myself. When I eventually had to choose my major in college, my dad told me, and I remember this word for word, “If you do what you love, you will be most effective in the world.” I thankfully listened to his advice and haven’t looked back.
I had an internship with children’s book illustrator, Ed Young, and that started me on that journey. To think that I could tell stories of people that hadn’t yet been told was a profound realization. Books and murals both reach the people I want most to reach. Every day people. Kids and teachers, people on the sidewalk. People who are in prison. People who go to the library or travel on public transportation. People who experience that the art world is just the regular world all around them. That’s my draw to murals. It takes the art world out of institutions and takes the money out of it and makes the art world the same as the regular world. I had long been wondering how I could make art but not live the solitary life of someone in their studio all day long. I had been wondering what kind of art I could make that would be telling a story that needed to be told, perhaps a story that was from someone who had the story and had the voice, but didn’t have the platform for expression. Murals and books became the platform for storytelling and the answer to my dilemmas.
IE: What kind of conversations do you hope people, especially children, will have when they experience your artwork?
KY: I hope that people will ask one another about the content. About their own stories. What I love most about murals is that the randomness of the act of painting a mural stops people in their tracks. It gets people off their phones and gets them talking to other passerby’s and people on the streets who they normally wouldn’t interact with. I hope, and I believe that people connect their own stories when they explore the story happening in a mural.