Mariko Tamaki on How the "Hard and the Happy Are Knitted Together"

SLJ spoke with Mariko Tamaki, author of YA prose novel Cold, about the resilience in her main characters, why the mother in her story is an author, and the dynamics of joy and trauma.

Mariko Tamaki's Cold tells the story of teenager Todd Mayer and the investigation into his mysterious death after his body is found in a park. The perspective in the book alternates between the deceased teen and his classmate's sister, Georgia Walker.

SLJ spoke with Tamaki about the resilience in her main characters, why the mother in her story is an author, and knitting together the hard and the happy. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.


Can you share a little bit about what inspired you to tell this story, and what the overall writing process was like?
I tried multiple versions of this book. A few drafts in the early days were told from just one character’s perspective. I wrote one that was from the point of view of the detectives. It just felt like telling the story from any single perspective was skewing more towards the story of A Crime, which was less what I wanted to write about. I felt like, because this was a YA book, I wanted it to be about an experience of being a teenager. I also wanted it to be about more than one outcome of that experience, which using more than one POV allowed me to do.

Photo by Sorrell Scrutton

Your stories are incredibly multi-dimensional and accessible, and this trickles down to your characters. What do you hope, if anything, teens learn from your characters' identity explorations and discoveries, both about themselves and others, in Cold?
If there is a lesson in here, it is probably a lesson in resilience, in the value of standing up for the things you know and find in yourself to be true. Both Todd and Georgia have the sense that it’s not okay to be who they are at their schools. But that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with who Todd and Georgia are.

I tend to write at least one character into my books that is better at doing this than I was in high school. Georgia is that character in Cold. I put characters like her in my books as a kind of beacon, to show it is possible to be yourself in the face of opposition, a thing to aspire to.

Did any of your characters end up surprising you as you developed them?
Always. One thing I realized as I wrote was that I was making assumptions about my supporting characters, especially, and who THEY werewhich ended up working well for the murder mystery element of the book, since so much of writing mysteries is underestimating people.

Georgia's mother is a children's author and, right off the bat, Georgia speaks about her mother's books: there are characters loosely based on Georgia and her brother Mark, and Georgia simultaneously feels like her path is laid out in front of her, yet she also feels lost. Many teens already feel this pressure without an author in the family; what made this particular framing so appealing to you?
I’ve spent a lot of time, maybe just enough time given what I do, thinking about the difference between the story of a person versus the actual person. At some point as I was putting this book together, I just had this very strong visual of a kid who’s spent her life with a storybook version of herself out in public, like a twin. A nicer, maybe neater, twin with lots of happy endings who only exists on paper.

Really, it’s less about children’s authors and books (both of which I love) and more a kind of literary twist of what many kids experience: the anecdotes and pictures that accumulate as you grow up, the story of you people tell, which starts out familiar and can at some point turn…frustrating. Not because it’s wrong, per se, but maybe because it’s not the whole story. The complicated story. The messy story. Maybe it’s the story people want to hear, or the story of you they can understand. I’m sure that nostalgic debris is even more intense now for kids who grew up in the digital age. I had maybe 20 photos of young me. Now kids have thousands.

I definitely felt a little lost when I was a teenager. Maybe because I didn’t know what story felt like mine. It took me a while to find it. A lot of the book is about these characters' struggle for a kind of trueness to self, a knowing of self, and having a parent who is creating a popular narrative of what that looks like seemed helpful.

Even though we only see Todd through flashbacks and as a spirit hovering over the living, we learn a lot about who he was while he was alive, including some questionable decisions he made. Aside from his tragic death, what do you think will stand out the most to teens about Todd?
To me, Todd is someone who feels trapped, and he’s come across this way of surviving high school; being cold and removed, acting like he doesn’t care. It mostly works, but it’s also kind of miserable. I send all my love out to the Todds out there who feel like they have no choice but to turn themselves to ice to get through high school. I hope the readers see all these other choices for Todd, and more importantly more choices for themselves.

This isn't just a book about a boy's death and its direct impact on his community. It's also about first experiences, love, and finding joy, even in the midst of tragedy. Why is it important for teens to see this dynamic of joy and trauma?
Some of the most amazing things that have happened in my life have happened in the pit of other really not great things happening. I think Inside Out (the animated film) did a much better job of explaining the connections between the sad and the happy things in our lives, so I won’t get into that. I do think that it’s taken me a long time to see that the hard and the happy are knitted together in our lives, they feed each other. It sucks and it’s hopeful, hopefully.

Alea Perez is the Head of Kids' Library at the Elmhurst Public Library in Illinois. You can follow her on Twitter at @ShhhYeah.

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