The murals Katie Yamasaki paints around the world—on the sides of buildings and community centers, on the walls of schools and classrooms—serve as an enduring testament to her dedication to education, art, and community. While they address a number of topics, a celebration of diversity is a theme woven throughout the more than 70 pieces. For Yamasaki, such an attitude toward difference is personal, as she makes clear in her new children’s book, When the Cousins Came.
Yamasaki grew up in a large family—27 first cousins on her mother’s side of the family alone—and a notably diverse one.
Many of her aunts and uncles married interracially, Yamasaki explains, listing Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Dominican, and Hawaiian aunts and uncles. Although spread out across the country, the cousins were all close and would see each other throughout the year. But depending on which combinations of cousins that got together, their gatherings would be different one from the next, and those differences fascinated Yamasaki.
“I remember thinking, ‘Oh, I'm half Japanese, a quarter French, and a quarter Irish, so you are too, because you’re my cousin,’ ” Yamasaki recalls. “And my cousins would say, ‘No no, I'm half Chinese,’ or ‘No no, I'm half Dominican.’ Differences, even little ones, like where you live or what foods you eat, can feel really big when you’re little.”
When we first meet Lila, a young mixed Japanese-white girl,she’s eagerly awaiting the arrival of her two cousins. From the moment she sees them approaching the house, she’s fascinated by how different they are from her. They have their hair styled in a way she’s never worn, and she asks them to help her do her hair like theirs. They eat using chopsticks, which Lila doesn’t know how to use, so she asks them to teach her. But then Lila realizes that her cousins also have things that they can learn from her. She helps them learn to ride a bicycle, and she suggests they give camping a try.
Using an array of techniques in the illustration of her book, from paints to collage, Yamasaki takes advantage of differences in texture and color to highlight the varied ways in which the cousins interact. “There’s a real difference, I think, between sharing and showing,” Yamasaki says. “When they’re showing each other how to ride a bike versus a scooter, they’re really engaged with each other. I put more butterflies in those scenes to show this feeling of real connection with each other. Then there are other times when they’re just showing off how they make their own art, and that connection isn’t really there.”
By exploring differences both small and large, Yamasaki has produced a gorgeous, layered book that is inviting to all readers. Her hope is that children will learn to see the beauty in difference.
“Right now, there's so much divisiveness in society,” she says. “I hope that this generation of kids, in terms of everything, race and class and gender identity…grows up with the belief that it’s good to be different.”
James Feder is a writer in Tel Aviv.