January 14, 2020

Let's Talk Illustrators #128: Rachel Wada

I was moved to tears the first time I experienced Heather Smith and Rachel Wada's The Phonebooth in Mr. Hirota’s Garden. I somehow totally missed it when it published last September, so when I saw it later in the year I knew I had to make my interview with illustrator Rachel Wada the first one of 2020. It was a pleasure learning more about the illustration process behind this beautiful, sobering book. Enjoy.

About the book:
When the tsunami destroyed Makio's village, Makio lost his father . . . and his voice. The entire village is silenced by grief, and the young child's anger at the ocean grows. Then one day his neighbor, Mr. Hirota, begins a mysterious project--building a phone booth in his garden. At first Makio is puzzled; the phone isn't connected to anything. It just sits there, unable to ring. But as more and more villagers are drawn to the phone booth, its purpose becomes clear to Makio: the disconnected phone is connecting people to their lost loved ones. Makio calls to the sea to return what it has taken from him and ultimately finds his voice and solace in a phone that carries words on the wind.

The Phone Booth in Mr. Hirota's Garden
is inspired by the true story of the wind phone in Otsuchi, Japan, which was created by artist Itaru Sasaki. He built the phone booth so he could speak to his cousin who had passed, saying, "My thoughts couldn't be relayed over a regular phone line, I wanted them to be carried on the wind." The Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011 destroyed the town of Otsuchi, claiming 10 percent of the population. Residents of Otsuchi and pilgrims from other affected communities have been traveling to the wind phone since the tsunami.

Let's talk Rachel Wada!

LTPB: When you received the manuscript for The Phonebooth in Mr. Hirota’s Garden, what about it drew you in? Did you immediately know what style you’d illustrate it in?

RW: As someone of Japanese descent, I am always ecstatic for the opportunity to tell stories about my culture and heritage through my craft. When I first received the email from Teresa (who was my wonderful art director from Orca Book Publishers), I felt an immense sense of responsibility to tell this story - based on the 2011 Tohoku earthquake & tsunami - with a lot of care and respect. The desire to honour those who have been affected by the 2011 tragedy is what truly inspired me to take on this project. 

Teresa was a dream to work with, as she had a clear vision for many of the spreads and how my artistic sensibility can translate well into what she had envisioned for the story. The inclusion of handwritten elements, the wordless spread of Makio looking into the water with the reflection of him and his dad, how the colour scheme evolves from dark to light as the story progresses - these are all things that Teresa had proposed from the beginning. So the final result came organically as a result of many of these back and forth conversations in the initial stage.

LTPB: The topic of this book is particularly tough to think about, let alone illustrate for children. How did you approach the illustrations? Did you do a lot of research? What challenges did you encounter?

RW: Research was an integral part of the creative process for this book. I spent weeks reviewing many documentaries, articles and podcasts regarding the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and Itaru Sasaki’s Wind Phone. It was hard not to get emotional throughout this process, hearing personal accounts of people who had lost their loved ones from the natural disaster. Though it was challenging at times, I wanted to carry on that emotional reaction and attachment that I had experienced through my artwork for the book to honour and respect all these real lives and real stories that have been affected by this real event.

 There were many dualities to balance in the illustrations. How do I capture a dark topic through a visual style that is palatable for a younger audience? An example of how we tackled this was not fully conveying the devastation and the wreckage of the tsunami. For the spreads of the tsunami and the aftermath, we emphasized on darker colours and tones complimented by heavy handed brushwork, to strike a fine balance between being dark, but not too dark and realistic that it becomes too heavy for a younger audience.

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? Is this your preferred medium? How does your process change from book to book?


To stay true to the story’s cultural roots, I took much inspiration from traditional Japanese artistic styles from Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, sumi-e (ink wash painting) to vintage Japanese children’s books. For this book in particular I made it a point it to utilize many traditional mediums from watercolour, black ink and graphite to allude to much of the inspiration that I was referencing for the book. I do utilize these mediums in my own personal work, but have had the tendency to work primarily digitally with most commercial and editorial work due to efficiency. Therefore, it was really refreshing to be able to dedicate a lot of time working with traditional mediums! 

LTPB: It looks like you do a lot of commissioned work and side projects! Can you tell me what else you do in addition to writing and illustrating children’s books?

RW: Outside of children’s books, I primarily work on editorial illustrations for newspapers, magazines and other publications! As The Phonebooth in Mr. Hirota’s Garden was my first children’s book project, it really ignited my passion for this field to want to pursue more work in literature! I hope to have the opportunity to do more in the future.

LTPB: What are you working on now?

RW: I do ongoing regular illustration work for The Globe and Mail, for their First Person section!

LTPB: If you were to write your picture book autobiography, who (dead or alive!) would you want to illustrate it, and why?

RW: What a fun question! The first artist that came to mind was Mary Blair - I’d love to see my life illustrated through her whimsical and colourful world!

A big thank you to Rachel for being my first guest of the year! The Phone Booth in Mr. Hirota's Garden published from Orca Book Publishers last September.

Special thanks to Rachel and Orca for use of these images!

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