The next chat with this year’s English-language Governor General’s Award winners is a conversation with Jon-Erik Lappano and Kellen Hatanaka. Jon-Erik and Kellen won this year’s award for Young People’s Literature (Illustrated Books) for their book Tokyo Digs a Garden.
“Tokyo Digs a Garden marries text and illustration in a richly ornamented dream landscape that simultaneously suggests a digital and an organic world,” states the jury. “Kellen Hatanaka’s illustrations are inventive and groundbreaking and the hypnotic text by Jon-Erik Lappano conveys its message in a darkly humourous and elegant manner. A book for any age.”
Jon-Erik Lappano is an environmental educator, storyteller, and creative producer with curiosity and love of all things wild. He lives in Guelph, Canada, with his young and growing family. This is his first book.
Kellen Hatanaka is a designer and illustrator who lives in Toronto, Canada, with his wife, Kiersten. He is also the author and illustrator of Work: An Occupational ABC and Drive: A Look at Roadside Opposites.
(Jon-Erik Lappano’s photo credit: Robert Scarborough; Kellen Hatanaka’s photo credit: Kiersten Hatanaka)
How did Tokyo Digs a Garden come to be a book?
JL: I have a curiosity and love for nature that was passed to me from my parents. Since childhood, I’ve been an advocate for the health and well-being of our planet and fascinated by our human relationship with it. It’s no surprise to me that it seems to find its way into almost everything I do.
I first had the idea for Tokyo Digs a Garden while working as a gardener in Toronto, over a decade ago. Digging and planting in the small backyards and balconies of the city, I had a lot of time to daydream. This is when the idea for the story first took root, and has stuck with me ever since. When Kellen and I talked of collaborating on a children’s book many years later, I knew it had to be this story, and had a first draft written within a week.
When Kellen and I talked of collaborating on a children’s book many years later, I knew it had to be this story, and had a first draft written within a week."
KH: I believe that Jon-Erik was sitting on this idea for a number of years, but the first time I heard about it was on a drive home from Stratford to Toronto. I was getting ready to pitch some ideas for my second book, which ended up being Drive: A Look at Roadside Opposites, and some how his idea for Tokyo came up in conversation. I immediately loved the story and the characters so I suggested I could run it by the publisher when I went in to talk about my other projects.
Tokyo Digs a Garden tells the story of a boy named Tokyo whose dense urban environment becomes a lush forest, complete with wild animals, overnight. Why is this an important story for children?
JL: This is a big question. First, because children need to see and experience wildness. I have two (soon to be three, oh god!) children of my own, and they love to be wild—totally entangled with the dirt and bugs and weather in the world around them. Stories that tend towards disorder are important because they bring out that feeling.
Second, I think it’s important for children (and all of us) to embrace and see the magic in the environments we’re in. Whether it’s a manicured patch of grass in the middle of a city, a park, playground, or acres of lush wilderness—we get so much from the natural world that is all around us.
Finally, we need to understand that we are not in control. We are a part of this planet, and must learn to live within it. Attempts to bend it to our will, ultimately, won’t work. Every place yearns to be wild. Weeds push through asphalt. Roots tap into underground piping. I think it’s time we honour our place within a living planet, and work hard to ensure that our impact doesn’t stifle the beauty and vibrancy of the wild world.
Every place yearns to be wild. Weeds push through asphalt. Roots tap into underground piping. I think it’s time we honour our place within a living planet, and work hard to ensure that our impact doesn’t stifle the beauty and vibrancy of the wild world."
KH: I think many of the issues we face today, and certainly the issues that our younger generations are going to face tomorrow are going to be centered around the environment, sustainability and how we can live in better harmony with nature. This is incredibly cliché, but kids are, of course, the future and getting them exposed to real issues at a young age is important. I think the way Tokyo is written is great for kids because it is dark enough to emphasize the importance of this issue, but optimistic enough to inspire kids to have meaningful impact in the world.
A book like this is truly a collaborative endeavour. What was it like to work together?
JL: It was a privilege to have someone so close to me, who is part of our family, illustrate this story and help transform it into what it is today. Kellen was able to fill in so much detail and richness that the text simply couldn’t do. He breathed real life into the piece, and the result was visually so striking. There wasn’t much cross talk between us. He trusted me and I trusted him. I think we both knew what the book was from the outset, and we were always on the same page. I can’t wait to collaborate with him again.
There wasn’t much cross talk between us. He trusted me and I trusted him. I think we both knew what the book was from the outset, and we were always on the same page. I can’t wait to collaborate with him again."
KH: Working with Jon-Erik was great. I have a lot of respect for his writing and he trusted me to bring it to life so we had a very smooth working experience.
What’s your own litmus test for great stories for young people?
JL: My daughters. When their eyes light up, when they laugh, or furrow their brows, the story is good. Any story that engages them and causes their minds to go to new places, is a keeper. My wife Stephanie is the book enthusiast in our house. She visits the library a few times each week and comes home with heaps of books, which our girls happily devour. I don’t know how we’re not drowning in library fines. This is almost certainly thanks to my wife.
When their eyes light up, when they laugh, or furrow their brows, the story is good. Any story that engages them and causes their minds to go to new places, is a keeper."
More than ever, stories that expose children to new ideas, diverse cultures and walks of life, alternative histories, critical thinking, and concepts that push the boundaries are so important. Even the youngest children can grasp complexity. We need stories to plant seeds that resonate for decades. The world needs good stories now, more than ever, to build a new mythology of where we want to go as a society.
KH: I think great stories for kids keep them entertained, but also encourage them to think and ask questions. I don’t think that there always has to be a huge lesson to be learned, but they should present unique stories and unexpected points of view. It’s also always a bonus if both the kids as well as the adults reading to them enjoy the book for both it’s story and illustrations.
49thShelf.com is built around a large community of readers and fans who love great CanLit. What Canadian authors are you reading these days? Any recommendations?
KH: I think Jon Klassen’s books are great. They are a perfect pairing of great illustration and fun, unique stories. Marthe Jocelyn’s books illustrated by Tom Slaughter are also some of my favourites.
JL: I’m currently reading The Inconvenient Indian, by Thomas King—he’s one of my favourite Canadian authors who can expertly mix humour and wit with critical commentary and wisdom. Our daughters are also big fans of his hilarious calamity of a children’s book, Coyote Sings to the Moon.
I'd also mention the work of Eleanor Catton, who won the prize for fiction for The Luminaries in 2013. Eleanor and I spent the early years of our lives playing together as neighbours in London, Ontario, and she is a wonderfully evocative writer.
As for children’s authors—there are so many, so I’ll mention just a few of our current favourites. Danielle Daniel, Dennis Lee, Barbara Reid, Jon Klassen, Jael Richardson, Nadia Hohn, Sara O’Leary, and I know I am leaving so many out.
These sample pages are taken from Tokyo Digs a Garden, text copyright © 2016 by Jon-Erik Lappano, illustrations copyright © 2016 by Kellen Hatanaka. Reproduced with permission from Groundwood Books, Toronto. www.groundwoodbooks.com