Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Wednesday, July 19, 2017: Maximum Shelf: The Tea Dragon Society

Oni Press: The Tea Dragon Society by Katie O'Neill

Oni Press: The Tea Dragon Society by Katie O'Neill

Oni Press: The Tea Dragon Society by Katie O'Neill

Oni Press: The Tea Dragon Society by Katie O'Neill

The Tea Dragon Society

by Katie O'Neill

"Once upon a time, blacksmiths were as important as magicians. They made tools for healers to cure the sick. Swords for adventurers to battle monsters. Shoes to shod the hooves of working animals. The world was forged in iron, once upon a time."

Broad shouldered, horned and boasting many gold piercings, Greta's half-goblin mother is a blacksmith who knows the importance of passing on a trade. As her mother's apprentice, Greta shares her reverence for blacksmithing, but she also has the same gentle and sensitive nature as her bespectacled, merchant father. On her way home from a day working in her mother's shop, Greta finds two large, scary-looking dogs cornering a tiny, terrified animal. Realizing quickly that the only danger is in how hungry the poor dogs are, Greta gives them the meat she was bringing home for dinner ("Mama's gonna be mad about the meat, but that's ok. Nobody deserves to starve.") and then scoops up the frightened little creature.

At home, she gets a closer look at the animal. Seafoam green in color, it looks to be some sort of baby dragon... with leaves growing out of its horns. Greta's scholarly father knows exactly what the animal is and who it belongs to. He sends her off to return it.

A "little way out of town," Hesekiel runs a tea shop. Tall, slim and vaguely reminiscent of a sophisticated donkey, he is a Sylph who lives with his human partner, Erik. Hesekiel is delighted to have Greta reunite him with Jasmine and takes special notice of Greta's kind care of the creature and Jasmine's affinity for the human. Tea Dragons are mercurial, domesticated animals--one moment sweet and cuddly, the next angry and biting--who are particularly distrusting of strangers due to a long history of being targeted by thieves. A Tea Dragon spends its entire life with its owner, nosily picking up matters in the human's life, big or small, and hoarding them. The leaves that grow around their horns can be harvested and turned into highly desired tea, but raising a Tea Dragon (and its leaves) to maturity is a difficult and timely task. Of the many members who used to be part of a worldwide Tea Dragon appreciation and caregiving group called the Tea Dragon Society, Hesekiel and Erik are now the only two left. Like Greta's mother's blacksmithing, as the pace of life quickens, fewer and fewer people specialize in the more time-consuming trades.

In addition to several Tea Dragons, there is also an accidental apprentice in the home of Hesekiel and Erik: a primarily mute young goblin named Minette who has lost her memory. The only long-term memory she has is of being gifted with "future sight" and thus training to become a prophetess; she continues to have difficulty forming new memories. Because of this, she is nervous and embarrassed around people, preferring the company of the devoted (though labor-intensive) dragons.

Greta's interest in and commitment to the dragons (and to Minette, Hesekiel and Erik) pulls her into the cozy, slow-paced world of the Tea Dragon trade. In time, Minette opens up and grows to befriend Greta and the two young girls and the older male couple form a brand-new Tea Dragon Society.

After a few seasons of working with the Society, Hesekiel offers Greta the chance to try some of the tea. Tea Dragons tea has a special property that gives the drinker a sensory experience depicting much of the dragon's owner's life (all those tidbits the nosy dragon hoarded over the years). Shown through the use of wavy lines and rounded, atypically shaped panels, Greta's tea experience shows her the story of Hesekiel and Erik meeting and falling in love. She also learns through Jasmine's tea leaf recollections why Erik is in a wheelchair.

The pace of Katie O'Neill's (Princess Princess Ever After) world is reflected by the design of the graphic novel: all of the colors are gentle and fully saturated, the story development leisurely yet full of life. There are no enormous cliffhangers or heartrending love affairs, but every character, even the dragons, is such a fully realized individual that the reader wants to know more. The page's natural white space acts as the borders for each panel illustration, allowing for individual panels to spread out organically--many panels are rectangular, while some have undulating edges, some overlap other illustrations and some are not panels at all but simply a figure on white space. The magic of the world is in the forefront as the novel and color palette move from season to season, beginning and ending with spring. Greta's story is soft and sweet, a journey of growing love and friendships. And for readers who want more, "Extracts from the Tea Dragons Handbook" can be found in the back, explaining more about the creatures with illustrations of dragons (such as Hibiscus) not seen in the graphic novel. --Siân Gaetano

Oni Press, $17.99, hardcover, 72p., ages 9-12, 9781620104415, October 31, 2017

Oni Press: Princess Princess Ever After by Katie O'Neill

Katie O'Neill: A Green Tea with Mango Dragon

Katie O'Neill is an illustrator and graphic novelist from New Zealand, and the author of Princess Princess Ever After. The Tea Dragon Society (October 18, 2017) is her second graphic novel with Oni Press. She mostly makes gentle fantasy stories for younger readers and is very interested in tea, creatures, things that grow and the magic of everyday life.

The Tea Dragon Society began as a webcomic. How did you start in webcomics, and why did you choose that publication medium?

I started posting online about six years ago. When I posted my first webcomic on Tumblr, the response was amazing--I'd never had that kind of reach before. So I thought webcomics were great, especially because I'm from New Zealand and it doesn't have all that much in the way of graphic novel publishing. Because of that, you kind of expect to do things as a hobby. For me to share it online was really natural--it's a bigger audience and I wasn't out to make a buck.

The first webcomic I did was Princess Princess. My editor reached out after seeing the work online and asked if I would like to publish it, which started my relationship with Oni Press. From there I was able to pitch The Tea Dragon Society. And even though Tea Dragons was originally posted as a webcomic, it was always conceived of as a book. Oni Press has been really chill with the idea of publishing online as well as print--it's a good combination because you build a following. It's a really amazing marketing tool that publishers are overlooking. I'm totally about the power of webcomics, especially for new creators, because it gives you the chance to build an audience and get the attention of editors while actually producing work and monetizing it yourself.

Will you continue producing webcomics now that you're twice published?

I think it depends on the story. My next project with Oni feels more graphic novel-y. I want people to be able to read it in one sitting, instead of getting a page a week. You definitely have to think of the pacing. Tea Dragons is a really slow story with no cliffhanger moments, which means you can totally read a page a week with a cup of tea. With other projects, if you've got quite a lot of tension, you can do batch updates. But in this case, I feel like the pacing is better for a graphic novel. I think in the future if I did a more laid-back comic, I'd do it as a webcomic.

Tea Dragons are tiny, domesticated, mercurial creatures with leaves that grow out of their horns. These leaves can be brewed for tea that has exceptional properties. Where did this idea come from?

The idea just came as I was talking to Oni about Princess Princess. I love tea and dragons, and it came together. I did a one-off drawing of a tea dragon and posted it online, which got a great response. And I thought I should really do something with this. In terms of the properties, in the book itself you encounter the four main tea dragons: chamomile, jasmine, rooibos and ginseng. But there's also back matter with a lot more properties and details and different dragons that don't appear in the book. I really like that this is just one slice of the world and you can imagine a lot more existing.

All tea dragons show you the experiences they've lived with their owners. They require 24/7 supervision, so they're with their person all the time, watching and being poky, nosy creatures in the lives of their owners. They absorb quite a lot of memories. When you brew the tea that a particular Tea Dragon produces, it will give you a sensory experience similar to smelling something familiar and being taken to a specific moment.

The romantic couplings in the graphic novel are quietly diverse and non-heteronormative: Greta's parents are a male and a female who do not fit into standard gender roles and her mentor is in a gay, interspecies relationship. Did you set out to have couplings like this?

It's mainly just what I love. And the range of different relationships and how people match together is really fascinating. I also like contrast in the couplings I write, so there's quite a lot of contrast [here].

Was the response online from children? What was the impetus to marketing toward children?

Actually, to be honest, most of the people responding on Tumblr were a little bit older. They were people who loved tea and dragons and liked to collect things. But I prefer writing for children. I personally connect with it a lot more and really enjoy it.

The world feels almost feudal with the trades and possible hierarchies. What drove you to create this world?

I think it just feels hierarchical because of the trades. I definitely wanted trades and crafts to be a really important feature--it's really important for kids to think about crafts and trades. Especially now that college isn't necessarily the most viable option, there are lots of other things they can consider. I wanted to present a world in which trades were viable. And I'm not very good at constructing world politics--I just want it to come across as a place where things make sense even if they're not outlined in the story.

In your editorial letter, you said you would like nothing more than to see young readers create their own tea dragons. What is your tea dragon?

I think mine would be a green tea with mango, and it would be extremely active in the morning and would absolutely crash in the afternoon. I feel like a lot of people have coffee dragons....

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