Author and illustrator Grace Lin holds a special place in my heart. That’s because the first time my little girl read a word aloud, it was from The Seven Chinese Sisters, a marvelous picture book Grace illustrated. “NO!” my daughter read, and I mouthed a triumphant “Yes!”
The book’s tattered pages are a testament to the joy Grace brings to children, enchanted by the bold colors and brave characters who show what can be accomplished when determined sisters stick together.
Today, as ChinaSprout kicks off a series of interviews with notable authors and illustrators, Grace talks about her Asian American childhood in upstate New York, her journey into new genres, and an eye-opening trip to China.
Check back in June, when Grace will return to this page to discuss her soon-to-be released novel Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.
- Jeanette White
ChinaSprout writer & editor
CS: Like a lot of writers, you loved to read as a child. How did the books you read back then influence the ones you write now?
Grace: Well, a lot of the books that I create now are almost homage to the books that I loved as a child. As I said in my author’s note in The Year of the Dog, some of my favorite books were the B is for Betsy or Betsy-Tacy books; I modeled The Year of the Dog and The Year of the Rat on the same themes—everyday friendship and family. Mine just happens to be an Asian-American family.
When I was younger, there were not a lot of books with Asian characters, much less Asian-American characters. The books that were available were like The Five Chinese Brothers which, as a thoroughly Americanized girl (surrounded by McDonald’s hamburgers and Little House on the Prairie TV shows) I could not relate to. Throughout my childhood, I yearned for books that had someone like me in it—characters that I could relate to.
Now, when I create books I remember that and try to make books that I would’ve loved as a child.
CS: Fans with growing girls are thrilled that you’ve begun writing novels for kids. Now they can enjoy your work after they’re past the picture-book phase. What prompted you to make the leap?
Grace: The Year of the Dog began as a sequel to my book The Ugly Vegetables. However, as I began to write, the book would just not fit in a picture-book format. There were so many memories—funny stories that needed to be told, poignant stories that couldn't be left out, family stories that insisted on being written ... they just couldn't be contained in 32 pages.
Finally, I realized that it wanted to be a novel and let it become The Year of the Dog. It took me only 5 years to come to this conclusion. But once I let it happen, things moved fairly quickly and I realized I loved writing novels. I love how much more of the story I can tell and the writing freedom. In some ways writing picture books is harder than writing novels; one has to be much more disciplined when writing a picture book text.
CS: When reading your novels Year of the Dog and Year of the Rat, it’s fun to know they’re based on people and events from your childhood. How did you go about rekindling all those memories?
Grace: Well, I collect memories slowly in my notebook(s). So, I always have a notebook (or these days the iphone!) with me. Whenever something reminds me of a past experience or my parents talk about their memories, I usually notate it and when it is time to write I look at my notes. They usually spark a story which sparks more stories and then (hopefully) they all come together into a novel.
CS: And now you’re getting mail from young readers themselves and not only parents of preschoolers! What do they say?
Grace: I love getting mail! Usually young readers tell me how much they enjoy my books (which is wonderful) and ask me when I am going to write another. Once in a while I will get suggestions on what to write for my next book; I have received a couple of requests for books about ponies!
CS: My daughters always recognize art by certain illustrators, such as Jan Brett, Eric Carle, and you. What inspired the trademark swirls and black outlines in your artwork?
Grace: The swirls are kind of my pattern for wind or air. I was inspired by Van Gogh's painting "Starry Night," and also because the swirl can be seen as a symbol for the "endless circle" (similar to the endless knot) in Chinese culture.
I think the bright colors of my work were inspired by all the bright flowers my mother grew in the garden and the black outlines by stained glass windows, another art form I loved to look at as a child.
CS: When you traveled to China with your sister last year, what surprised you about the country? How have you used elements of that visit in your work?
Grace: China was so much more vibrant and richer than I imagined. But there were more small differences than I anticipated. For example, purchasing things in China is a multi-step process; bargaining is always expected. In China, I remember a group of waiters being fascinated by my sister and me—first, that we were sisters (a rarity in one-child policy China), and that we could barely communicate in Chinese. Those unexpected little things made me realize how important it is to experience other cultures in person.
I definitely used my experiences in China in my new novel Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, and Beijing is going to be the setting of an upcoming picture book.
CS: What inspired your picture book The Red Thread: An Adoption Fairy Tale?
Grace: The Red Thread is actually a very controversial book for me. I have not internationally adopted (though it was something my late husband and I thought about) so it is a book about issues that I may have not grasped thoroughly and can be misunderstood. I have been honored in the past to be invited to many Families with Children from China events, and noticed that many Chinese adoption groups had taken the legend of the red thread (a belief that people destined to be together are joined by an invisible red thread) which was originally for marriages and reinterpreted it for adoption. I thought that was fascinating and wonderful, how myths are and can be transformed over time. To me, it is like being Asian-American—the changing and melding of customs and cultures to fit real life. I feel like it makes these beliefs more real, more “living”—not just studied in a book. So I took that interpretation of the red thread and made a fairy tale story out of it.
However, there has been some concern that The Red Thread "glosses" over the truths of adoptions, painting an unrealistic picture of families torn apart and brought together as well as racist undertones (yikes!)—I hope anyone who knows me or my work would know that was not my intention. For those who find offense with the book, all I can say is “I’m sorry!” and thank those who enjoy the book in the spirit it was intended.
CS: Does it bother you to be labeled a “multicultural” children’s book writer and illustrator?
Grace: When I first started out, it did bother me but now I don’t really care. Being “multicultural” is tricky in terms of marketing and career projectory; but nowadays I just concentrate on books that I love making and that I want to share with people. It’s not that I’ll never do a book with a Caucasian boy (I would do a book on anything if I felt it was right) or that my books are meant to preach (horrors!). It’s just that a while ago, I realized that being able to publish my work was a gift not to be squandered on something soulless. And my soul is Asian-American.
CS: You’re obviously a prolific writer and illustrator, but do you ever get writer’s block? Or start a book and scrap it? You must have a proven method for getting past that.
Grace: I don’t really “scrap” an idea, but I do let things sit on the back burner if they don’t seem to work. As I said before, the stories for The Year of the Dog sat around for five years until I realized how to make it work.
To get past writer’s block, I usually just start working on something that has a deadline. Somehow, whenever I am working on a deadline project, I suddenly get lots of ideas for other projects. Works every time.
CS: Talk about about your most rewarding moment as a writer/illustrator.
Grace: There have been so many rewarding experiences that I am very grateful for like fan mail, the Lissy doll, theatrical interpretations—it’s hard to pick one. Most recently, someone said to me, “Oh, my kids grew up with your books,” and I had to pinch myself. How neat is that? Just realizing that my work has become a part of someone’s childhood is extremely rewarding.
CS: Sounds like you’re on the road a lot with speaking engagements, but please describe a typical day when you’re home.
Grace: Oh dear, I'm really very boring. I wake up, eat, check my email and surf the net under the guise of "industry research," which usually meanders its way to "book idea research." Then, when I am horrified at the amount of time I have spent sitting on my bum "researching" (probably while eating at the same time), I go outside and ride my bike or go to the gym for an hour or two. Then I return home and write, draw or paint—trying all the while not to get sucked back into "researching." Of course I inevitably do, and the rest of the day is filled with the back and forth battles of concrete work vs. pretend work. This usually goes on until I go to sleep at night, unless I am seeing friends for dinner or someone comes over. Depending on deadlines and/or the next day's schedule, I go to bed at around 11 p.m. - 2 a.m. Of course everyday errands such as cleaning, groceries, etc., get jumbled in, but all in all, I have a pretty quiet life. I hope that wasn't too disillusioning!
CS: What do you read in your free time? Which titles or authors have especially impressed you lately?
Grace: I have not had the time to read a lot lately, but the most recent book that I’ve enjoyed is Masterpiece by Elise Broach. Another book is Alvin Ho by Lenore Look, whose writing I admire quite a bit—it is very clean, simple, poetic and fun.
CS: Am I wrong or do you have a slight obsession with food? It’s not just Fortune Cookie Fortunes, The Ugly Vegetables and Dim Sum for Everyone! Even in your novels, food is a frequent topic. What’s that about?
Grace: Well, I learned in Taiwan that the Chinese character for "beauty" is actually made up of the characters for "big" and "sheep." A big sheep obviously meant a delicious meal; the character implies a beautiful taste. So, early Chinese equated good food with beauty, which is something I do as well! Though, I would prefer not to think of myself as a fat sheep.
CS: Your first picture book, The Ugly Vegetables, was published 10 years ago. How has your life changed during that time?
Grace: Well, it has changed quite a lot. I’ve been a bride, a wife and a widow, as well as an illustrator, an author-illustrator, and author. These are threads that make up my life, and I try to be grateful for the bitter as well as the sweet.
CS: Fast forward two decades. Finish writing the introduction you’d like to see appear with your work in 2029. “Grace Lin is …”
Grace: Hmm, let’s see: Grace Lin is the successful author and illustrator of beloved books by children young and old (including her recent bestseller) and lives with her loving and healthy family in a charming home in a lovely town/city filled with good friends.
CS: Next month we’ll talk about your new novel, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, set for release in June. But for now, what other titles or projects can we anticipate?
Grace: Right now, other than preparing for the launch of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, I have been working on Ling and Ting, which will be an early reader featuring Asian American twins. I'm so happy to be working in the genre; my favorite books when I was young were books like Frog and Toad, Snipp, Snapp and Snurr, and Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka; to do this book is really a great gift to my childhood self. Since the writing in this book will be spare and stylized, the illustrations are also going to be more stylized and simpler than my picture books.
Also down the pipelines is a picture book on the Moon Festival (featuring the same family in Dim Sum For Everyone!) and another picture book called Li Na’s Lily which will be set in Beijing. I have a couple of novel ideas in my head, but none under contract yet—so I’ll wait before I talk about those!
Another project I would like to mention is my small graces charity project (http://www.smallgraces.org/). Once a month a small (roughly 5x5 inch), unpublished, original painting of mine will be auctioned off through eBay with 100 percent of the proceeds to benefit the Foundation of Children's Books.
The original paintings, done by me, will all be illustrated small bits of wisdom (inspired by the collecting I've been doing on my personal blog for Fortune Cookie Fridays). There will be a new painting a month for the year of 2009. This is a great way to own a piece of my original art for a bargain price!
CS: Sounds great. Thanks for your time, Grace, and we’ll talk again next month!