Katie O'Neill is back with her latest young adult graphic novel The Tea Dragon Society (978-1620104415, $17.99) from Oni Press, releasing October 31, 2017. After publishing her beloved queer-friendly fairy tale Princess Princess Ever After last year, O'Neill puts together another beautifully illustrated and poignantly written story about friendship, acceptance, and tradition.
The Tea Dragon Society is a charming all-ages book that follows the story of Greta, a blacksmith apprentice, and the people she meets as she becomes entwined in the enchanting world of tea dragons. After discovering a lost tea dragon in the marketplace, Greta learns about the dying art form of tea dragon care-taking from the kind tea shop owners, Hesekiel and Erik. As she befriends them and their shy ward, Minette, Greta sees how the craft enriches their lives --and eventually her own.
In anticipation for her upcoming graphic novel, Diamond spoke with Katie about her inspiration for this story along with her creative process. The Tea Dragon Society (978-1620104415, $17.99) will be on sale on October 2017.
Ashley Kronsberg: Can you give a little insight into your design process? What usually comes first, the story or the art? Do you find yourself doodling images on a piece of paper or do you prefer using an art tablet?
Katie O'Neill: A lot of my stories recently, including The Tea Dragon Society, have sprung from doodling creatures and then imagining how they might fit into a world, and the characters who might interact with them. There’s always a few elements like main characters or important places that arrive mostly formed onto the sketchbook, but once I start to formally flesh out the story I end up with a shopping list of supplementary places and people that need to be designed. It’s really fun working that way! You get a balance of spontaneous design, as well as research and development that helps you consciously choose the visual direction you want to take the project in.
Overall I do about 90% of my work on an art tablet and my computer, but the parts that I do in my sketchbook are very important in terms of just getting a bunch of ideas out at the early stages. For me, the sketchbook is the easiest way to brainstorm a ton of different concepts and let the ideas flow, and I’ll often come up with major scenes in that stage too.
What was the inspiration behind The Tea Dragon Society?
I drew the Tea Dragons on a whim and posted them online, and ended up receiving a number of questions about them and how they work. I had so much fun answering them and coming up with the lore, I knew I wanted to flesh the concept out into an entire story!
How did you go about deciding what kind of tea would be associated with each dragon?
Rather than matching the tea to the dragon, I tried to match the tea to the personality of the owner. Hesekiel is very refined and elegant, which always makes me think of delicate Jasmine tea. By contrast, Erik is strong and hearty and warm, like Rooibos. Minette is very gentle and sweet, like Chamomile. Greta was a bit tougher to decide, but I ended up going with Ginseng, which I feel has a strong energy and vitality.
Which character do you relate to the most?
I think probably Greta - the scene where she worries she’s taken too long to respond to Hesekiel’s invitation was rather true to life. She’s also very sincere and not afraid to show how much she likes and values her friends.
In the story, Greta is met with the challenge of continuing to practice arts that are slowly becoming obsolete, was this a conflict you wanted to tackle from the beginning or did it develop organically as the characters unfolded?
I think a little bit of both. It developed quite early on- as soon as I realised how difficult a Tea Dragon would be to take care of, it reminded me of old techniques such as letterpress printing that are still enjoyed by dedicated practitioners, but very much faded from their heydays. I think it’s really important to preserve these and keep the knowledge alive, and not just in a historical sense. Having worked in a letterpress workshop and seen how excited kids get about the presses and inks and designs, they’re so passionate and have such interesting ideas that will naturally keep the practice flourishing if given the encouragement.
For me the tea-making was always going to be an essential part of the story, and I thought that blacksmithing was very compatible. In blacksmithing you can create the tools and instruments used to brew tea finely, and they’re both domestic skills that use fire and hearths. It also provided a nice contrast - Greta is a physically strong person, and blacksmithing is very active and energetic compared to tea ceremonies which are more relaxed and reserved.
Minette remains an elusive character even to Hesekiel and Erik until Greta starts training at the tea shop, what was the importance of Greta being the person who helps Minette push through her insecurities and mysterious past?
Hesekiel and Erik are excellent and caring guardians for Minette, but they could be intimidating for her to open up to - she might be afraid they have an answer she doesn’t want to hear. Having someone her own age means they can work out Minette’s past and difficulties together, she can speak more freely and take things at her own pace, and it definitely strengthens the close bond between them.
Princess Princess Ever After and The Tea Dragon Society are told as one collected story, but have more than enough context to continue their stories. Do you have any plans on expanding on either title, or do you feel these stories work best as individual works?
I do think about it a lot! If I ever feel that I have a story for either world that needs to be told, I would definitely like to expand on them. I’m a huge fan of slice of life, so in particular a series of vignettes about different Tea Dragon Societies around the world would be really fun! That said, I’m very content with them both as stand-alone stories, so it’s mostly a matter of waiting to see if the right inspiration drifts by.
In both of these works, you subtly and beautifully introduced LGBTQ romances. How do you feel about the overall positive feedback these relationships have received?
It’s been really wonderful! It’s absolutely highlighted the need for more child-friendly LGBTQ stories. I’ve had parents, librarians, teachers and of course, grown up kids themselves writing to tell me they’re so glad there’s a story that shows a happily ever after for a same-sex couple in a book that’s completely kid-friendly. That feels really amazing, and I hope we continue to see this grow across all kinds of children’s media - to help kids normalise their identities, and feel safe and accepted.
The Tea Dragon Society deals with two distinct disabilities over the course of the story in an incredibly thoughtful way. What was your motivation behind including these disabilities?
In this case, the fact that Minette and Erik have disabilities grew quite naturally with the characters, and as the first draft came together I knew I wanted to be deliberate and thoughtful about how I was going to portray disability in the story. Both characters respond with strength - Erik by finding a new adventure to enjoy, and Minette by opening up to herself and others, and learning to trust herself. My goal was for their disability to be one facet of their character, rather than the defining trait, treated with honesty and a part of their rich and happy lives.
Your story has already been described as a “lovely celebration of kindness, patience, friendship and tradition,” why were these important characteristics for you to incorporate into this story?
I wanted to make a book that readers could take a quiet strength from, that would make them feel happier if they’re down, and give them a break from life if they need it. Similar to taking the time to sit with a cup of tea on a stressful day. I’m very interested in the idea of stories as a kind of therapy and alleviation, and how they can improve people’s mood or develop a positive perspective on life.
If you could have your own tea dragon, which one would it be?
Probably Chamomile! Not only is the tea delicious and calming before bed, the Chamomile dragons are so chill. I think it’d be lovely to have one as a companion, to remind you each day to take it easy and not worry so much.