Back in November, during the NYC School Librarian Conference, I had the wonderful opportunity to meet Kevin Pyle, author and artist of Blindspot, Katman, and now his newest release, Take What You Can Carry. I’d read his books earlier and always enjoyed them, but upon hearing the description of his latest title, I was intrigued. I think in part that was because I thought of it as another resource for students who were reading the short story The Bracelet and teachers who were struggling to build their students’ background knowledge on the Japanese Internment. When I finally got my hands on the title, it was even better than I had expected. The story is captivating and the artwork is truly breathtaking. I’m still waiting on teen feedback. But I’m confident this book will find its audience.
Below, Kevin Pyle graciously agrees to talk about his book and the process in which he developed the title.
EK: Thank you for doing this interview. I really enjoyed your latest title, Take What You Can Carry. It’s a very rich title. Can you please tell our readers a little about the book and how you came to write these stories?
KCP: Take What You Can Carry tells two parallel stories of adolescent boys who have fallen into thievery for different reasons. One follows the experience of a thirteen-year-old Japanese-American boy who, along with his family, has been relocated to an internment camp in the weeks following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He is stealing things that help make life more comfortable in the camps. The other story is set in a suburb in the late seventies. In this story the boy is stealing for more common and less sympathetic reasons: to relieve boredom and impress his new friends. You could say that both boys are stealing in reaction to their environment, though obviously the boy in the camp has a much rougher life. The stories end up connecting when the contemporary boy works for the owner of the convenience store that he stole from. It turns out that the storeowner is the boy in the internment story forty some years later.
This story comes out of my own experience working for an Asian-American storeowner I had shoplifted from as an adolescent. It was something that changed me at a critical time and I’ve often thought of fictionalizing this experience. I think there can be a tendency to think that bad kids will always be that way instead of trying to understand why they might make bad decisions. Years ago I illustrated an article for a law journal about the success of “restorative justice” with juveniles. It’s an approach where offenders meet and listen to their victims and acknowledge the harm they’ve done. Part of the idea is that it meets the needs of the victims and they take a role in the process. It struck me at the time how similar this was to my experience, which had the desired effect of me never stealing again. I have always wondered why the storeowner had chosen this arrangement instead of pressing charges and when I started thinking about translating this experience into fiction, the internment story just sort of came to me. I’ve always been interested in that history as Farewell to Manzanar, a memoir of an interned Japanese American girl, was one of the assigned books I remember really liking in high school. When I hit on the idea of the storeowner having a deep need to relay his experience and how that experience would influence his own approach to a similar situation, I knew this was a story I wanted to tell.
EK: You alternate between the two stories, that of Ken in the Japanese internment camp and Kyle, who is new to an upcoming suburb in the 1970s, but with very different styles. You alternate in both the use of color and the fact that Ken’s story is entirely wordless. Why did you choose to write it this way?
KCP: The alternating chapters seemed like the best approach to telling this story in a way that would allow me to unfurl the plot in a surprising way. Both of my previous graphic novels used color as a storytelling device so this was another way of exploring that idea. The choice of making Ken’s story wordless was more of a process and it ended up feeling like the right approach for two reasons. One, I wasn’t entirely comfortable putting words in the mouth of someone whose cultural and historical time was so different than mine. I know that’s what authors do but the experience of being Japanese-American in the 1940s and then having everything taken away from you seemed so emotionally complicated that I was afraid I would get something wrong. By making it wordless, I think it gives the reader the opportunity to bring their own emotions and empathy to it rather than having me orchestrate it. But I was also looking for a way to make that story feel like a memory and being wordless somehow had that effect. It serves to separate the two stories, especially because I wanted the contemporary story to have some first person narration.
EK: Can you describe the research you did to write this title?
KCP: One of the first things I did was reread Farewell to Manazar as well as Citizen 13660 which is a visual diary written and drawn by an artist in the camps. Because the idea of petty theft is an important plot point I wanted to make sure that it was common enough that it didn’t seem forced. I found allusions to it but nothing as concrete as I wanted. I ended up contacting a painting teacher I had in college who had been an infant in the camps. He pointed me to some sources that really helped and gave me the confidence to go forward. Our contact had the added benefit of me being able to send him the book and have the satisfaction and relief of knowing I got everything right. Almost every scene in the camp sections of the book come from some actual aspect of the experience that I read about. The most important of these was finding out about the handicrafts and artwork that the internees fashioned from scavenged materials. It has been called “art of the gaman”- “gaman” being a Japanese term meaning “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity.” I found these objects to be very compelling and ended up using them as Ken’s way of dealing with his experience. Of all the objects, I was most drawn to the carved birds, which struck me as a hopeful symbol of escape through the transformative power of art. I also looked at lots of online photographic archives and books. I discovered that the great American photographers, Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange had both photographed in the camps. I had originally planned to set the story in a composite camp in order to have it reflect the wider experience of all the internees. But then I saw, in both Lange and Adams’ photos, the large mountain that overlooks the camp in Manzanar, California. Somehow, imagining what it would be like to be looking up at that huge mountain, after having had one’s life uprooted by indifferent and powerful forces of history, seemed to resonate with some of the emotions the internees must have felt. At some point the opening scene of book, where Ken is looking out over the fence with the mountain looming behind him, came to me. So these photos ended up pointing me towards Manzanar as a location and it was fun for me to pay homage to them, as well as the work of the “gaman” artists, in the imagery.
EK: When I met you back in November, you made an off-hand comment about how it takes years to create a comic, but only twenty minutes to read it. Can you elaborate? And how does that make you feel?
KCP: It’s just something that struck me one day. I must admit it can be disconcerting to see someone blowing through a graphic novel, turning a page a second, when you think of how long each of those pages takes. But I think it can inform how you create your stories. I try to pull a lot of themes into my work that will hopefully linger and resonate with the readers after they’ve read it and bring them back to it. I want to reward careful reading. Take What You Can Carry has a few pages of historical notes in the back and it would be great if they would inspire the reader to start the whole book over again. On a somewhat different point, I had the experience recently of talking to a high school class of English as a Second Language students who had all read Katman. I was gratified that they had picked up on all the themes and plot intricacies and the teacher remarked that she thought they had really benefited from being able to read it multiple times – revisiting and analyzing it with the concepts, like setting and character, that she was teaching. I should also say that I’ve noticed my own son, who is a big reader of prose novels as well as comics, will reread his comics much more readily than a prose book.
EK: Do you have any more projects on the horizon?
KCP: I’m currently working on a non-fiction book, with the comics writer Scott Cunningham, about the history of parental fears and moral panics around stuff that kids love. Things like the comic burnings in the fifties, banned books, videogames, playground safety, etc. It’s a fascinating history that goes all the way back to Plato warning about kids reading fairy tales. It’s called Bad For You, the Truth Behind the Campaign Against Fun. and I’m sketching out the last chapter right now.
[Note: EK. I’m putting that on my reading list! That sounds like it’s right up the alley of almost any middle schooler I’ve met!]
EK: What titles are you reading now? What comics, aside from your own, would you recommend to our young readers?
KCP: I actually tend to read mostly adult contemporary fiction but I have an 11 year-old son and am always on the lookout for things he’ll respond to. One book we both liked was Two Generals by Scott Chantler. It tells the story of two best friends who are part of the allied invasion of Normandy. I don’t think it was necessarily written for young readers but it’s age appropriate for teens and sophisticated tweens. There is a small amount of gore in it but it functions as giving a realistic picture of war. One of the things I especially found effective is that you get to know the characters in peacetime, which makes the war section that much powerful and dramatic. The art has a clear, crisp style and it’s a beautifully produced book. Another one my son liked that I’m halfway through is Ichiro by Ryan Inzana. It is a lavishly illustrated story that combines Japanese folktales with a contemporary story of a fatherless Asian-American boy connecting to his Japanese grandfather. It has a great mix of quiet everyday moments and exciting, action-filled fantasy. Interestingly, both books also use color as a narrative device.