We chat with author and illustrator Josh Tuininga about the graphic novel We Are Not Strangers, which is inspired by a true story and follows a Jewish immigrant’s efforts to help his Japanese neighbors while they are incarcerated during World War II.
Hi, Josh! Can you tell our readers a bit about yourself?
Hi! I live out in the woods not too far from Seattle where I make comics out of my converted Bluebird bus. I also run a small graphic design business with my wife and I teach art classes at my kids school once in a while. In my spare time I can be found on the soccer field or the ski slopes, but usually I’m hunkered down in the bus, drawing and writing.
When did you first discover your love for writing and illustrating?
Well, my dad was an artist so I grew up surrounded by creativity and art making. I started drawing and writing comic strips at a very young age but I didn’t take it seriously until much later in life. When I had kids of my own, I read countless childrens’ books, (Some amazing, others not so much) and it was then that I thought to myself – hey, maybe I should give this a shot! So, I wrote and illustrated my first children’s book and was lucky enough to find a good publisher. I guess it was just a natural next step to dive head first into the world of comics and graphic novels.
Quick lightning round! Tell us the first book you ever remember reading, the one that made you want to become an author, and one that you can’t stop thinking about!
Calvin & Hobbes checks all of these boxes for me. It was the first comic strip I remember falling in love with. As a young kid I was captivated by Bill Watterson’s masterful illustrations, which motivated me to draw every day. And decades after I was introduced to them, I still think about all of the little tidbits of wisdom I gathered from his incredible characters.
Your graphic novel, We Are Not Strangers, is out now! If you could only describe it in five words, what would they be?
Conflict, Incarceration, Uncertainty, Allyship, Hope
What can readers expect?
Those 5 words might make this book sound like a heavy read, but ‘We Are Not Strangers’ is a very accessible, entertaining book for both young and adult audiences. It’s a historical fiction story about a really hard time for a lot of people, but I can promise you this – you’ll love the characters and you’ll learn a ton without even realizing it. The true stories that this book is based on are very inspiring, so you can expect to feel uplifted and optimistic. And for those that aren’t familiar with Graphic Novels, you can expect this book to read almost as if you are watching a movie. It’s a great intro book for people who want to jump into the genre of comics for the first time.
We Are Not Strangers is inspired by a true story. What led to wanting to bring it to the page?
Well, this project began with a story that my uncle told me about attending his Grandfather’s funeral. It was a typical Jewish event until a handful of Japanese-American guests arrived. No one knew who they were or why they came. My Uncle found out that his Grandfather had helped these families out when they were forced out of the neighborhood and incarcerated during WWII.
The story only took a few minutes to tell, but for the next few days I couldn’t stop thinking about it. At first I thought it would make a great short comic story for a local Seattle newspaper. But as I began to do some research, the story began to grow. I learned about other similar stories of people reaching out to help their neighbors and friends during the war. I learned about the unique diverse community of the Seattle Central District, where my family is from, and I started to learn more about a dark part of history that I knew little about. The next thing I knew, I was interviewing Rabbis on the daily and sitting down for poke bowls with Japanese fishing merchants.
I ended up weaving together the oral histories of many people to write this book. And now it’s a full blown graphic novel with a national release! I am so thankful this project grew into what it is and that this incredible true story is getting out into the world.
Can you tell us a bit about the illustrating process?
Yes! I relied on source material to guide my illustrations on this project. One of the funnest parts of my process was researching things like clothing from the time period and important historical landmarks I could incorporate into the settings of my artwork. Sometimes when I’d sit down to draw a page, I would even throw on some Duke Ellington or Ella Fitzgerald to try and capture the mood of the time period while sketching my scenes.
What do you hope your readers take away from We Are Not Strangers?
There’s a lot of things we can learn from these rare stories of people helping out their neighbors during times of division. It seems like nowadays we’re kind of encouraged to see one other as strangers in many ways. It’s crazy how divided we have become in this country. But, I’m hoping that ‘We Are Not Strangers’ can act as a reminder that it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way.
I live out in a rural area, where not everyone in my neighborhood see’s eye to eye on every issue. But I find that if I just take a second and listen, maybe even try and help out, I can always find some sort of common ground. I think that’s really powerful and in my opinion something that we could all use some more of these days.
What’s next for you?
Not sure yet. I have a bunch of half started projects that all seem to have promise. I am interested in doing another family historical fiction story and I also have some fiction work I am exploring. I just wish I had time to do them all.
Lastly, do you have any book recommendations for our readers?
I love everything from Jeff Lamire or Chris Ware. And a shoutout to Seattle authors Ellen Forney and Lara Kaminoff, both of whom I highly suggest checking out. I also recommend The Night Eaters which won an Eisner award this year.