How to Create 'Sixteen Candles' for Queer Teens
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because she’s mixing romantic comedy and teen drama — in a graphic novel form.
By Fiona Zublin
When Mariko Tamaki was growing up in Canada, she didn’t see herself reflected in the love stories she read. First of all, most of them were about straight people. But more than that, she says, “most of the queer love stories I read were about adults, about a secret love, about overcoming that impossibility to fall in love.”
Her new graphic novel, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me, a collaboration with illustrator Rosemary Valero-O’Connell, is, as Tamaki puts it, “a story about a queer teen in love where her being queer isn’t an obstacle in the story.” The lovers in Laura Dean are a queer couple, and their relationship is rocky. But none of those rocks present the usual beats of queer young adult (YA) fiction: Nobody has to tearfully come out to their intolerant parents or face down homophobic bullies. Instead, this graphic novel delves into toxic vibes within the relationship itself — a privilege that’s been afforded straight couples in YA forever.
There are many high-profile graphic novels about coming out — see, for example, the seminal memoir Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel. But Tamaki’s work is part of a new era in YA novels and films: Stories about gay teens that don’t focus on coming out, but on gay teens living their lives.
Tamaki hung out with — not to say eavesdropped on — a lot of teenagers while writing the book, to make sure she got the speech patterns right.
Tamaki, 43, is no stranger to writing about troubled teenagers. In Skim, a collaboration with her cousin Jillian that was nominated for four Eisner awards in 2008, a young Goth strains against the norms of her ’90s Catholic school while developing a crush on one of her female teachers. Caldecott honoree This One Summer, published in 2014 and also a collaboration with Jillian, is about teens at the beach waking up to adult problems. In 2016, This One Summer was the most challenged book in school libraries, according to the American Library Association’s annual list, as parents and administrators across the country tried to yank it from shelves. Some called it “vulgar,” others denounced its LGBTQ themes — though, as Tamaki points out, the LGBTQ content occupies two pages in which a character mentions that someone else’s parents are lesbians.
“I think the two that most definitely will live on are This One Summer and Skim,” says Terry Hong, a writer and critic who focuses on Asian American literature. “The worlds [that Mariko and Jillian] create together of girls’ lives are just so fluid and natural and raw and vulnerable.”
Born in Toronto into a Japanese-Canadian family, Tamaki — as many writers do — keenly observed those around her. She was “watching what other people were doing, trying to figure out exactly what it was I was supposed to be doing,” she explains. She majored in English literature at McGill University and swiftly found success: Skim was the first graphic novel ever nominated for Canada’s prestigious Governor General’s Awards for children’s literature (Tamaki was nominated again, in 2014, for This One Summer). Now she lives in the Bay Area, where she writes not just graphic novels but also superhero comics: She penned last year’s X-23, about Wolverine’s daughter, along with a series about She-Hulk and a reboot of Supergirl’s origin story. Next up, an Archie Comics arc about the romance between Archie Andrews and Sabrina Spellman (aka the Teenage Witch).
Writing for teenagers isn’t always easy. “Her dialogue is deceptively idiomatic and casual and conversational,” says Calista Brill, an editor who worked with Tamaki on both Laura Dean and This One Summer. “She works incredibly hard on capturing certain rhythms of speech.” Brill says Tamaki hung out with — not to say eavesdropped on — a lot of teenagers while writing Laura Dean, to make sure she got the speech patterns right. Tamaki herself, Brill says, is “extremely plain-spoken and honest,” key traits for the collaborative nature of graphic novels.
Tamaki’s career was launched with her high-profile collaborations with her cousin — and, for some, her work without Jillian doesn’t have the same spark. While Hong describes the art in Laura Dean as “wonderful,” she laments that it “just doesn’t have the symbiotic energy, the broad strokes, the lively immediacy that Jillian adds to Mariko’s words.”
While Laura Dean’s energy is different from that of Tamaki’s other work, the novel manages to be — as the best romantic comedies for teens are — both powerful and fun, capturing just how much everything matters when you’re a teenager in a way that looking back, it’s hard to fathom. That rom-com vibe buoys the story’s darker elements. Even for Tamaki, though, the concept of writing “Sixteen Candles for queers” shifted somewhat during the creative process. “As I got into it, I realized it’s actually not a love story,” she says. “It’s like a post–love story, about what happens after you fall in love.”
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