Saki Tanaka’s Debut Children’s Book Celebrates Mixed-Heritage & Friendship

Mexican-Japanese author and illustrator Saki Tanaka has released her debut, "Between Words

Saki Tanaka Between Words

Photos courtesy of Saki Tanaka; Orchard Books

Latinx representation in publishing remains low despite some indications of progress but representation of mixed-heritage Latinxs is even lower and author Saki Tanaka is among the few making a change. Saki Tanaka is a Mexican-Japanese author and illustrator based in Denver, Colorado. The daughter of a Mexican mother and Japanese diplomat father, she uses her mixed heritage and real-life experiences as a person constantly traveling to inform her written and visual work about belonging, family, and language. This month, she published her debut children’s picture book Between Words: A Friendship Tale, which centers on a young boy named Kai who follows his Pa from place to place, always meeting new people along the way. When they settle in a valley full of pools, this time for good, he tries to play with other children, only for his foreign words to drive them away. Lonely and frustrated, he kicks his favorite stone into one of the pools. When he goes after it, he suddenly finds something more valuable and beautiful than he could’ve ever dreamed. Accompanied by lush and colorful illustrations, this is a story about friendship, hope, and bridging divides.

“I hope that it reaches the kids, the dreamers and the sensitive children who want to find belonging, who sometimes feel like outsiders, who sometimes have trouble or struggle making connections like I used to as a perennial outsider,” Tanaka tells HipLatina. “That is my big hope.”

Tanaka shares that it took 10 years for her to write her debut book but in some ways, she’s been preparing for it her whole life. She didn’t grow up with the kind of parents who wanted her to pursue a career in medicine, law, or engineering, and they encouraged her creativity, which already included drawing.

In some ways, art provided a source of comfort when she was a multi-ethnic girl who was always the new kid, feeling like an outsider everywhere she went. She was born and grew up in Japan and later Mexico, spending a lot of time in Chiapas, the southernmost state in Mexico, while also spending time in the U.S. and France. She alternated from feeling like she fit in to once again being the outsider. In Japan, she looked the part but didn’t fit in because she didn’t speak Japanese and if she did, it was with a Mexican accent. In Mexico, she spoke Spanish fluently – as it is her first language – but she would get called out in the street for her appearance and be faced with surprise and disbelief when she told people she was Mexican. What made everything that much more difficult was that she couldn’t always talk about or vocalize how she felt. With friends, she had to compartmentalize her different cultures and how she presented in society. And while it was very challenging at times, today she appreciates her mash-up of cultures because they are all an important part of who she is today.

“I have an abuelita and a baba, which is grandma in Japanese. I grew up in Chiapas, where my grandparents were from. I got to swim in rivers, light fireworks on roofs all day, and see stars while growing up on anime and manga,” she says. “It’s a combination of cultures that wasn’t very common but it culminated in the creation of my book. It became a reclaiming of so many things that I used to feel like I had to hide and be ashamed of. It was a survival mechanism but now I realize that it might have been a gift.”

But at the same time, as a young girl, Tanaka knew that she had to pursue a creative path with intention and practicality, not base all of her work on imagination. She decided that she wanted to become a graphic designer, got a design degree, and ended up working in the field for almost 20 years. While she enjoyed many aspects of the job, like being able to work for different clients and come up with fresh concepts, it was all about problem-solving and realistic ideation. It lacked the “whimsy and magic” that she was looking for in life and over time, it took an emotional toll on her.

Eventually, she started taking continuing education classes in writing and illustration, where she was able to connect with a like-minded community that was just as passionate about creation and creativity as she was.

“What’s so lovely about community is that you start to cross-pollinate because everybody’s from such diverse backgrounds,” she says. “But practically, you also get to share intel about how to get things published, how to work on your craft, how to build a three-act narrative structure, everything from nuts and bolts to just holding each other through the rejections.”

Over the next five years, Tanaka was able to form writing and critique groups which allowed her to meet more people in writing and take on courses per their recommendations. She was coming up with ideas, or as she calls them, “seeds,” for stories that she could develop and turn into full-length projects. One in particular was inspired by a friend who was always traveling around the world with a sense of wanderlust and fun, which felt so foreign to her own experience. While she had also traveled in her youth, she did so as an outsider battling feeling lost and the absence of anything familiar. Her curiosity in this contrast eventually became the foundation of Between Words, a story about a little boy named Kai living a nomadic life to mimic her own upbringing. She was also intrigued by freshwater caves, which are among the deepest in the world, and the divers who explore them, which inspired the idea of a fantastical world under the surface of water.

By 2014, the seed became a rough manuscript she drafted on her typewriter, which helped create momentum and excitement for the story. She created backstories for Kai and his father, which didn’t end up making it into the book but were important for her to understand who they were as characters. Then, using hand drawing, watercolor, and colored pencils, she played around with sketches and drawings of various human characters. Kai’s appearance, characterized by wide, messy hair, was actually inspired by her brother as a child. She also did studies of ocean animals such as sea anemones, which inspired the design of the octopus-mermaid creatures that Kai befriends in the story.

She also took care with the various cultures that are represented in the book. Along with Mexican and Japanese folklore, she was also inspired by the literary traditions of magical realism, Studio Ghibli films (a Japanese animation studio), surrealist art, and her constant travels as a child. In one spread, she called on her memories of a little town in Japan called Kurashiki where a single river runs through, similar to Venice, and hundreds of cherry blossom trees grow in a line. She used these linear elements to create lines in their fashion, language, and overall aesthetic. Also in Japan, she was heavily influenced by indigenous Okinawan and Ryukyuan cultures for much of the traditional clothing she depicts in the various villages that Kai visits in the first part of the book. This also carried over to the design of the thatched houses she drew, which she discovered is an architectural style shared between her Mexican and Japanese cultures, even though they use different materials.

“Being able to take something that I have a connection to and being able to research that and combine them to create the aesthetic was just so gratifying and grounding,” she says. “There’s something about knowing where your roots might be from, and then being able to reference them in these imagined cultures into this new creation for me was very grounding and felt very cool to be able to do, especially when there were all these unexpected overlaps between the two seemingly disparate cultures.”

Even the way she wrote out the title of the book on the front cover is a reflection of all these small but important choices that further the message of the story.

“There are parts of the letters that are blurred out and parts that are sharp, because for me that mimics the way that you acquire a language and start to learn how to speak and communicate,” she says.

After signing with her agent Linda Pratt and Scholastic editor Kait Feldmann, she continued to develop this story with their help. One day, they told her that she was trying to fit too many themes into one book like home, belonging, relationships with our parents, and the difficulty of making friends. When picture books are meant to be in a short format, there is only room to deeply explore one theme and do it justice. When she realized this, it brought her back to a memory from her childhood when she was just seven years old starting her first day at an international English-speaking school in France. The problem? She didn’t speak any English or French and, unable to communicate with anyone, was left standing on the playground all alone, lost, and feeling out of place.

“Then, I saw this girl standing a little far away looking equally lost. But then our eyes met and she smiled, which gave me the courage to wave at her and she waved back. That little small act of kindness was such a saving moment for me because it opened up the doors and helped me realize that I could do this. I could make friends here,” she explains. “That unlocked the story and everything floating around fell into place.”

With the book now out in the world, she’s had the opportunity to share the story with children in school settings and read-aloud storytimes. For her, she’s learned that this is the part where the book truly comes to life, with her experimenting with different intonations of words, dramatic pauses, and performance styles.

“It was such a point of contention as a kid, not having the right words and feeling like that’s what was keeping me from connecting with the world. So it’s this full circle cathartic experience of being able to use words to then connect with other people through this book, and I don’t take it lightly,” she says.

Even in the wordless sections where Kai is exploring the pools in the village, Tanaka has noticed that these are the moments when kids interact and engage with the story the most. They chime in with their observations about what’s unfolding on the page, like the moments when Kai and his mermaid friends play hide and seek, play with snails, and pile stones. They can read the expressions of the characters, understand complex emotions, and predict what’s going to happen. They hold their breath anticipating what’s going to come next when she turns over to the next page.

“The journey now has just begun,” she says. “I get the honor and privilege of performing and sharing the story, and using these words to now connect with kids. Focusing on that one-to-one conversation is the spark that makes humanity what it is. This is a small microcosm of that, this intersection between enchantment and empowerment, this magic of seeing yourself and connecting and making sense of the world through books. If I can make one dreamer, sensitive kid, or anybody who’s ever felt like an outsider feel even a bit more seen, what magic that would be. There’s beauty in all of us being so different because that’s what makes a much richer world. There’s also magic in finding unexpected similarities and realizing that differences can be bridged through small acts of kindness. I tried to impart those themes and I hope in all of the books I make.”

Looking ahead, Tanaka is working on her second picture book titled Nimbus Plays Alone, which follows an introverted rain cloud who likes to play alone but then meets different kinds of clouds who want to play with them too. Over time, Nimbus learns about balance, boundaries, and retaining a sense of self while letting others in at the same time, continuing the themes of connection and independence from Between Words. In addition to a few graphic novels, she’s also working on a book about her grandmother, who she credits for bringing folk tales and creativity into her life, and what it was like growing up with her.

Overall, she’s excited to continue this author-illustrator journey she’s embarked on and to keep exploring the themes that have always been a part of her life. While she hopes that her books will find their readers and that she contributes to a larger conversation about cultural diversity and her multi-ethnic experience, she ultimately creates her stories to heal a part of herself that has been too long over looked. She notes:

“While I keep other kids like myself in mind, I primarily write for that part of me I remember being more than anything, to honor little Saki and her inclinations. It’s tapping into that desire that I had as a kid of wanting to be seen, wanting to feel like I belonged and was accepted for who I was as I was and thriving because of it. It’s having the agency to take this idea of magical worlds and make it a reality. Because to find belonging, to invite people in, to translate inclusivity and kindness into other things, it really can start with you. One way of having that courage is to connect with other people and reach out even if you don’t have words, even if you are a perennial outsider. That kind of empowerment is something that I value and to be able to give that back through my work is amazing. It’s magic.”

In this Article

AAPI AAPI Heritage Month Asian-Latinx children literature Children's Book Featured picture book
More on this topic