Interview with Children’s Book Author & Illustrator Grace Lin
A dragon. The Old Man of the Moon. A red thread. Ugly vegetable soup. Alone, these are just words on a page. But author Grace Lin, who resides in Massachusetts, has taken these words and nursed them into influential children’s books that have won numerous awards including the 2010 Newbury Honor for Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and the 2011 Theodor Geisel Honor for Ling & Ting: Not Exactly the Same. Further narrating each of Lin’s tales are her colorful illustrations that are known to jump off the pages and into the imaginations of the children reading her books.
What books were your childhood favorites and why?
Honestly, there are too many to list! The first ones that come to mind are Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, The Search for Delicious and Family Shoes. They might initially seem a little different from the books I write, but I see the similarities. I love books that have a lot of heartfelt sentiment – which is very different than sentimental – and that is something I strive for in my work.
Do you have a favorite book that you’ve written?
Oh, that's a hard one. My favorite picture book is The Ugly Vegetables and my favorite early reader is Ling & Ting: Not Exactly the Same. But both those genres have many writing restrictions, I couldn't write those using hundreds and hundreds of words – which is one of the reasons why I started writing novels. But most novels, like my book Year of the Dog only have black and white illustrations, if any at all. So I'd have to say my favorite book is a tie between Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and its companion book Starry River of the Sky because both those books are novels, but they also have full-colored illustrations, which is very unusual for novels. So for those books I could write as many words as I wanted, as well as use as many colors!
Do you find it challenging to shift between different age levels? Is there one age group you most enjoy as readers? If so, why?
It's more of a natural process. Usually, an idea will sit in my mind for a long time and gradually turn into a story – and I let the story dictate which age level to write it for. I love picture books and early readers, but I have to admit that getting feedback directly from readers (instead of via proxy by their parents or teachers) is pretty amazing. It really makes me feel like my work is having a positive impact, which is, of course, the biggest reason I wanted to be an author in the first place. This is perhaps why most of my recent books have been novels. However, now that my baby daughter is starting to show interest in picture books, I think I might find some good reasons to gravitate back to the younger set!
What advice do you have for beginning writers?
If you want to be a writer you have to be a reader. Every book you read is going to make you a better a writer. The books you hate will teach you how not to write and vice versa. And books you think don't matter – like the Chinese fairytale books that I read when I was younger and then disregarded – can come back and be incredibly influential.
What inspired you to begin writing for children?
Well, I write children’s books because I love them. I think they are the best books out there; they are what I read in my spare time. Even though I have read many classic adult novels, the books that I read as a child are the ones that I remember and love the most. The children’s books are the ones that have made the most impact on me, the least of which is a love of reading. So to me, children’s books are the most important books to read as well as write.
How long does it take you to write a book? And to draw the illustrations?
It really depends on the book. Usually I am thinking about a book for years before I actually put anything down on paper. Year of the Dog, my first novel, took five years for me to write and it’s only about 160 pages. The Ugly Vegetables, my first picture book, took three to four years. For a picture book like Bringing in the New Year, it takes me about half a year to get the story written and approved by the publisher and another year and a half to create the illustrations. Novels take me even more time. A book like Starry River of the Sky, the companion book to Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, took me two and a half years to write and another half year to illustrate. It has never taken me shorter than two years to write any book and, unfortunately, I feel like I am getting slower! The novel I am working on now might be published in 2016.
Where did your inspiration come from when you wrote Where the Mountain Meets the Moon?
Well, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon was first inspired by the folktales and fairytales of both Asian and European/American cultures that I read and loved as a child. I grew up in Upstate New York, the only Asian (except for my sisters) in my school and because of this I was very uninterested in my Asian heritage. In fact, most of the time I just forgot I was Asian.
My mother was sad that I had so little interest in our culture, so she hoped she could pique my interest with the Chinese fairytale books. But when I began reading the Chinese folktales I was, at first, disappointed. Used to lush illustrations and descriptions, the Asian books were plainly translated with an occasional, simple black and white line drawing and seemed an inadequate comparison. However, slowly I discovered the stories had a magic and I began to imagine details of my own, tinged with Asian-American sensibilities.
When I grew older and was able to travel to Hong Kong, Taiwan and China, the stories came alive. And Where the Mountain Meets the Moon came into existence. It’s a homage to the folk tales and fairy tales I read in my youth – a mixture of Asian fairy tales and North American classics. Not a traditional retelling of stories from either cultures, it is a mix like me, Asian-American. Hopefully, it is full of the magic from both that will satisfy readers everywhere.
How does it feel to see this book turned into a play at Wheelock Family Theatre? How involved were you with the process?
I’m absolutely thrilled to have my book turned into a play! Even though the play has been performed in other areas, this will be the first time I will actually get to see it in person. Every time I think about any of the performances, I remember a line from the Penderwicks on Gardam Street that goes, “... all this was the result of her imagination come to life,” and it’s hard not to pinch myself. I can’t wait to see it in person at Wheelock.
I’ve been involved with the production mostly as an enthusiast. Jane Staab [co-founder and co-artistic director of the Wheelock Family Theatre] was kind enough to show me the costume drawings and asked me some preliminary questions, but in terms of directing, casting and even the script, I’ve kept out of it. I know that book has to be adapted to fit the stage and I trust the people at Wheelock. They’ve been doing this for decades and have a better idea than I on how to make a successful performance!
What do you see as your most important role as a writer?
To me, being a writer and an author are two different things. My most important role as a writer is to create the absolute best story I can, to be as true to the story in my head as possible. My most important role as an author is to make sure that what I’m writing is worth sharing with people, that my work is something I think readers will enjoy. It’s the combination of these two things, having a balance between the pure writer and the audience-aware author, is what I think gives a book its best chance of being loved.
Cheryl Crosby is the senior editor of Boston Parents Paper.