July 9, 2024

Let's Talk Illustrators #294: Saki Tanaka

Today I am so pleased to share my interview with debut picture book creator Saki Tanaka! Her first book is called Between Words: A Friendship Tale, and Saki graciously takes us on a deep-dive (pun intended!) of her process with lots of process images to share. Please enjoy!


About the book:
Kai is used to following the seasons with Pa, from place to new place where people speak languages unfamiliar to his ears. When they finally settle in a valley full of pools, Kai tries to invite the other children to join in his play, but the strangeness of his words drives them away. Frustrated, he kicks his most treasured stone into one of the pools and in his search for it, finds something even more valuable.

Peek underneath the dust jacket:


And check out the endpapers:



Let's talk Saki Tanaka!


LTPB: Where did the idea for Between Words: A Friendship Tale come from? This is such a personal story, how long did you work on it before you were ready to publish it? How did your illustrations evolve as you worked on it?

ST: Between Words took nearly a decade from idea to publication! The initial spark of curiosity that got the ball rolling was ignited when I heard a radio story (circa 2014) about the world’s deepest freshwater cave. I’ve never grown out of being that kid who’s constantly looking around the corner for portals into enchanted worlds, so my first reaction was to wonder what secret realms and magical beings this cave concealed.

Around that time, I was intrigued by a friend with insatiable wanderlust who was constantly traveling. These two fascinations collided in a story about a boy who feels stuck living in a valley full of pools, always chasing new horizons. I tinkered with this version of the book for years but it never quite clicked. It finally started to work when it dawned on me that this was the opposite of my lived experience—moving from country to country and feeling like a perennial outsider—and flipped the script to make it about a nomadic boy who yearns for belonging, mirroring my childhood.


I then worked for about six years on this version of the book before it got acquired. My illustration style steadily evolved during this time, moving away from a pure realism as I learned about the craft of visualizing stories (I am a bit of an online and IRL workshop addict) and discovered new illustration techniques. As I refined the book to better capture my lived experience, I also began incorporating cultural influences from my Mexican-Japanese heritage (color palettes, character design, aesthetic details). This meant I had to update the book dummy every few years!

With each version, I started out by designing the characters and sketching the most salient scenes in my head, then painting my favorites as “finals” (ha), then adding these to my portfolio and book dummy to query my agent and eventually my editor.

The stylistic evolution of characters in Between Words.

One of the very first sketches I made of an underwater scene from Between Words.

An early painted underwater scene.

An updated underwater scene I submitted in my book dummy to query my dream agent, Linda Pratt.

LTPB: What did you find most difficult in creating this book? What did you find most rewarding?

ST: The most difficult part of creating Between Words was finessing its story and defining the core emotion at its center. It was about too many things (finding home, family bonds, making friends) when my brilliant editor, Kait Lee Feldmann, acquired the book in 2020. She helped me narrow my focus by asking me what main memory or feeling from my childhood made me need to tell this tale, and it immediately brought me back to my first day of school in a foreign country my family had just moved to. I was feeling lost on the playground, surrounded by unfamiliar words and faces, when a girl noticed me and smiled. This gave me the courage to wave at her, and she waved back! Her kindness opened the door for me to find friendship and belonging. This memory urged me to share this courage with anyone who’s ever felt like an outsider or struggled to make friends. Once we figured this out, all the story elements slowly started to coalesce.


What followed was a pretty grueling year of revisions and edits. We went back and forth, orbiting around this idea that small acts of kindness can help us embrace our differences and connect without a common language. I’ve lost count of the twists and turns we took; writing out the story beats, mapping emotional arcs in thumbnails, and mocking up dozens of little dummy books.

Various book thumbnails tackling everything from emotional arcs, story beats, visual continuity, action lines and value studies.

Just a few of many, many book dummies.

The most rewarding part of making Between Words was realizing that it takes a village to bring a book into the world. Not only did I lean on countless critique group friends (shoutout to the Seedlings, Wellies, Tuesdees, Bridge Club, and Sister Moms), mentors, and amazing kiddos who were my first beta readers, I got to work with three fantastic editors and a topnotch design team.

I can’t possibly list every single creative contribution in this post, but here are some highlights from the Scholastic team:

Kait, my first editor, made me recognize the genius of keeping the underwater scenes wordless to help readers viscerally experience the magic of non-verbal communication. These wordless spreads are my (and a lot of kiddos’) favorite part of the book! She also elevated the ritual of stacking stones (which started as one tiny vignette in the draft she acquired) into a beautiful metaphor for Kai’s journey and narrative tool that carried the story forward.

Kai wordlessly making a friend using the universal languages of laughter, play, and enthusiasm.

My second editor, Jess Harold, added the visual and verbal poetry of Kai stacking “Words. Friends. Home.” and encouraged me to add the author’s note at the end which I will forever be grateful for!


Clarissa Wong, my third editor, provided the most elegant streamlining that strengthened the logic, flow and focus of the story. The best qualities of the book were able to culminate into its fullest expressions thanks to her insights.

Our creative director, Patti Ann Harris, encouraged me to revel in my love of magical worlds and this flourished in the various “unrecognizable” cultures (recreating the impression I had about each new country we moved to in my childhood), serving as the backdrop for Kai’s journey.



And designer extraordinaire, Rae Crawford, suggested strengthening the visual ties between Kai’s underwater and above ground friend (supporting my desire to blur the lines between fantasy and reality), and provided the game-changing direction to show a cross section of the pool Kai jumps into that beautifully sets up the page turn into the wordless spreads.


The book ended up becoming the best it could because of everyone’s collective genius.

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?

ST: My process and medium varies for every book, but always starts with me pondering “what do I hope readers will feel when they see these images?” and with everything I make, this is usually rooted in enchantment, empowerment, and a feeling of being embraced.

For Between Words, I wanted there to be a degree of visual realism to make the fantastical portions of the book feel like they could actually happen. I used watercolor, colored pencils and (minimal) digital collage because these tools presented a mix of organic unpredictability and control/precision, respectively. I leaned on the watercolors to create the more surreal aspects of any given image (blurred edges, blooms, gradations) and colored pencils for more realistic definition, while digital techniques straddled both of these effects. Looking back, I’d say 80% of the illustration was rendered in watercolor—the transparent and luminous quality of this medium felt like the perfect match for a story that takes place in a pool!











My only real preference when it comes to mediums is for the traditional and tangible—the smell of paint, the granulation of certain colors, the sound graphite makes on paper—all of these things give me so much visceral joy. Lately I’ve been playing with water soluble crayons, ink, tempera, acrylic gouache and multi-colored pencils. For me, collecting art supplies is almost as fun as getting to play with them!

LTPB: What are you working on now? Anything you can show us?

ST: I just completed the final artwork for my second picture book, Nimbus Plays Alone, about an introverted rain cloud that learns to let others in while being true to themself. I had fun incorporating some of the Colorado landscapes I now get to see on a regular basis!


Now that that’s wrapped, I’ve turned my attention to my next picture books which have just found an amazing new home; one is about my grandmother who nurtured my love of reading (with a whimsical twist of its own, of course), and another one that we're discussing which might be based on a Japanese mythical creature that I’ve been working on since before Between Words. Whenever I can, I also try to revisit my middle grade sci fi/fantasy graphic novel that explores the nature of time and relativity.



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

ST: Oh MAN. What a fun, FUN question to get to answer! In no particular order:

Diane and Leo Dillon, Akiko Miyakoshi, Chris Van Allsburg, Akemi Tsutsui-Kunitake, Anthony Browne, Dan Santat, Victoria Turnbull, Jimmy Liao, Heather Brockman Lee, Z.B. Asterplume, Maurice Sendak: For the whimsy and surrealism I so crave that these magicians would undoubtedly be able to inject into the depiction of my life.

Kaylani Juanita, Anden Wilder, Nic Wong Forti, David Roberts, Vanessa Brantley-Newton, Gael Abary, Jessica Love, Andrea Cruz Floren: I am obsessed with how stylish and unique these creators' characters (and the worlds they inhabit) are! They use beautiful details—from very specific color combinations, to accessories and home decor and outfits I wish I owned, to hairstyles and even beauty marks—that make their work so singular. When I grow up, I want to be as cool as their characters and their art.

Annie Herzig, C├ítia Chien, Bo Lu, Rachel Michelle Wilson, Mike Curato: Because they are masterful at evoking emotion, conveying connection, and making illustrations that feel like an embrace and balm for the soul. I’m an Aquarius (Pisces rising) and an enneagram 4w5: I feel and emote intensely and it would require artists of this caliber who are so good at making others feel seen to capture the depth and breadth of my inner turmoil!

A big, big THANKS to Saki for taking time to answers some questions about her debut picture book! Between Words: A Friendship Tale published from Orchard Books earlier this year!

Special thanks to Saki and Orchard for use of these images!



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