By Sean Z.
Kay O’Neill is an Eisner and Harvey Award-winning illustrator and writer whose The Tea Dragon Society series will come to an end with the third book, The Tea Dragon Tapestry, which is slated for release in June. In addition to being one of my all-time favorite graphic novel series, both for its touching story and its beautiful handling of diversity and inclusion, The Tea Dragon Society has received well-deserved praise and accolades.
Ahead of the release of The Tea Dragon Tapestry, I spoke with O’Neill via e-mail about the series.
Sean Z: How would you describe the Tea Dragons series to a new reader?
O’Neill: A story about the folks who dedicate their time and attention to caring for a variety of extremely fussy, magical tea leaf-growing dragons.
From the young Greta, Minette and Rinn, who are each at the start of their journey to learn about the dragons and themselves, to older characters such as Hesekiel and Erik, who have woven the creatures into their lives and seen how life changes. In return for the diligent care shown to them, the Tea Dragons will store memories shared with their owner in their tea leaves, which can be re-experienced when they are picked and brewed.
It’s a mixture of coming-of-age and fantasy, with a big sip of lore and folktale.
Sean Z: Did you always intend for Tea Dragon to be a series, or did that develop over time?
O’Neill: I designed the first book to be a standalone, because I was very new to publishing at that time and wasn’t sure what the future held. I didn’t have any specific ideas for a continuation right away, but while working on Aquicorn Cove, I found some new characters and ideas naturally bubbled up and drew me back to the world.
Sean Z: How did The Tea Dragon Society Card Game come about?
O’Neill: Steve Ellis and Tyler Tinsley are the clever folks behind it! I’m not a huge board game person myself (I claim to be non-competitive, but when I do play I always get completely into it), so I wasn’t sure how it would work out, but it’s such a fantastic translation to a new and interesting medium. The concept of spending time with friends, family and tea is so integral to the book series.
Sean Z: Have you always both written and illustrated your stories, or did you do one over the other when you first started creating?
O’Neill: When I was in university, I aspired more to be a writer of prose fantasy (and sometimes when I’m in the midst of drawing a complicated crowd scene, I briefly fantasize about that life), but even then, all of my story brainstorming was done visually, and I always drew sketches of the characters and most pivotal scenes. Even when I was younger, the two tended to go together in little picture books or illustrated short stories.
Prose allows you to create images in the reader’s head that might not be able to physically exist, while drawing allows you to speak things that might not be able to be put into words. Both powers are so fascinating, and I hope to explore prose more in future.
Sean Z: Can you discuss your process, and how you approach diversity and inclusion?
O’Neill: Portraying an inclusive world is fundamental to me, especially in a fantasy setting. So far, all the settings I’ve introduced have strong themes of community, collaboration, acceptance and sharing of resources. I’ve tried to create worlds in which children who belong to marginalized groups (and those who don’t) can see how the world could be at its best, which I hope provides some peace and comfort in the work they read.
Sean Z: The protagonist of the second work, Rinn, is never referred to by a pronoun, and their Uncle Erik refers to them as ‘nibling’ instead of nephew or niece. Can you discuss Rinn a bit more, and how you developed their character?
O’Neill: Sure! Rinn is an apprentice cook in a village that dwells high in the mountains, and even though they have great knowledge of all the herbs and plants that can be harvested and used for food and medicine, they struggle with perceiving that as their strength and a unique skill.
I knew from the first time I drew them that Rinn would be non-binary. However, I wanted to write in a way that a young reader could also interpret them as trans (which some nb folks identify as, and some don’t), or whatever gender identity they felt drawn towards.
Sean Z: If you’re comfortable discussing it, you came out as non-binary as the series was ongoing — did your journey and experience influence the final book in the Tea Dragon series?
O’Neill: I think it’s more the other way around — creating my books and characters influenced me, and helped me learn much more about myself! I’m very fortunate that from the beginning, I was pretty much given free rein to design characters that appealed to me completely. In Aquicorn Cove, the character Aure is also non-binary. I felt strongly drawn towards these characters, even though I was still fairly content with my identity at the time.
Looking back, there are other characters I’d created (for personal projects that I’m taking my time with) who I also now describe as trans, that I had been drawing and thinking about for literally years, and then suddenly, it hit me that these were expressions of something within me that I hadn’t yet realized I could put into words. My stories and characters understood me before I understood myself.
Sean Z: What was the most difficult part about writing the end of the Tea Dragon series?
O’Neill: I wanted to balance a solid, satisfying ending, with the feeling that there was still so much more life for these characters to live. At the end of the book, Greta and Minette have learned a lot, but it also sets them up for a new beginning. I hope I have left enough for readers to feel that everyone has much to go through, yet much to enjoy.
Sean Z: What do you think was your biggest triumph of the series?
O’Neill: I’m proud that each of these books feels very true to me, from the visuals and art through to the ideas and story. They reflect parts of myself, stages of my life, and things I am interested in or find aesthetically joyful. In a way, they feel completely self-indulgent, and I’m grateful for the editorial freedom that I had right from the start. I’m so pleased that a work with so much of myself in it, seems to have resonated with readers.
Sean Z: What is your favorite type of tea?
O’Neill: It changes constantly, but at the moment I’m enjoying a nice vanilla or spiced Rooibos mix!
To keep up with Kay O’Neill and their work, follow them on Twitter and Instagram. The Tea Dragon Tapestry is available now from Oni Press. A review copy was provided to the author for interview purposes.