These sentences are dappled across a two-page spread of Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s This One Summer (2014), as though they are wafts of milkweed ink:
“The first time I ever saw a milkweed was on the beach at Awago. I thought they were magic pods. I thought that if we ate them, the fluff would make us grow wings. So Windy and me picked like hundreds of them. A whole knapsack. We were going to mix them with ice cream and milk and coconut.”
The plants are drawn from mid-stem up, their leaves and stems detailed and scored with dark lines and texture, the fluff barely-there, side-stroked wisps of near-nothing. There is a sense of wonder and possibility there, which mirrors the innocent plans and musings of a younger Rose and Windy.
On the next page, the story slips back into panels. They are neatly drawn and squared, but just slightly askew, like images from a scrapbook of photographs with those old fashioned corners that required licking and sticking to hold the image.
“Then my mom found the knapsack and she told us milkweed is really poisonous.”
It isn’t even about whether or not it is poisonous; what matters is that something beautiful was declared to be other-than-expected, the possibilities squelched by contradictions.
In another book, this realization might have slipped into anti-grown-up-ness. (And perhaps justifiably so, for Rose certainly has her hands full this one summer, coping with her parents’ problems, just as she is at her most-between, when she is keenly craving stability and security.)
But although they do not inhabit the story’s core, the parents in this book are fully integrated into the story and their own characters are well enough established to hint at other narratives orbiting the story of Rose’s summer without a full-on collision.
This passage immediately leads into one of my favourite scenes, in which Rose is sitting at the table reading a book while her mother French braids her hair. In the final panel, after the braid is tied off and her hair has been smoothed down, Rose looks up from her seated position and asks her mother if she’s planning to go down to the beach with the girls. The mother’s face is beyond the panel, but her arms drape across Rose’s shoulders, her wrists limp and her hands dangling below Rose’s neck. Rose grasps her wrists and waits for the answer.
Rose is somewhere between hand-holding and braiding her own hair. She is still looking up at her mother, but on the verge of understanding that her mother’s decision to stay indoors really has nothing to do with Rose but with matters about which Rose has been unaware. (This is yet to happen, because this scene is early on, but it is in the wings.)
On the surface, This One Summer is about a single summer, in which certain matters which were either tremendously fuzzy or completely out-of-view begin to have edges and emerge from the sidelines where grown-ups live.
It is simultaneously about the glorious and seemingly unending days of summer-somewhere-away, somewhere barely touched by rest-of-the-year concerns, and about that time of life when adulthood, too, seemed impossibly far away, but was inevitably approaching.
Cottage life is captured so perfectly that it feels like there are grains of sand trickling out of the binding, and it’s a relief that the book has one of those waxy softcovers, because otherwise it would surely curl from the dampness of those early cottage mornings.
The drawings, the layouts, the ratio of text-to-image, the narrative pacing, the dialogue, the characterization, the setting: every component combines seamlessly with the whole to create a winsome and soul-satisfying tale.
This is one of my favourites this reading year, and I expect I will reread it every summer (possibly every winter too). In fact, I might just reread it now, this (one) summer.