Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Interview With Newbery Honor Author, Grace Lin

Grace Lin is a talented picture book author and illustrator. But she is best known for her Newbery Honor novel, WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON.

1. Take us back to the beginning of your career. How did you break into the business?

I graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in Illustration, knowing that I wanted to be a children’s book illustrator. I sent out thousands of samples of my illustrations, hoping to break in. Nothing happened for two years, yet I refused to give up. I took an assortment of jobs and kept sending out samples and pounding the pavement. Finally I received a call from Harold Underdown, who was then Senior Editor at Charlesbridge. “I’ve always liked your art,” he said, “but I’ve never had a story that matched it. Do you have a story that goes with your new sample?” I said yes, even though I didn’t (I was desperate!), hung up the phone and began to write. After countless revisions and editorial handholding, the story became my first published book “The Ugly Vegetables.”

2. I read a quote in which you said, “My soul is Asian American.” Explain how your heritage has enriched your work.

As a child I completely disregarded my heritage. I didn’t want to be Asian. But when I grew older, I realized that being Asian is actually something to cherish. When I began to acknowledge my heritage, I was surprised at just how Asian I am and sad that I didn’t know more. Asian culture is interesting to me, because it is like finding hidden parts of myself. Books are my way of rediscovering the culture I lost and sharing the culture I know.

3. After several published picture books, what prompted you to also write novels?

My first book “The Ugly Vegetables” was semi-autobiographical and remains my favorite picture book. As soon as it was published, I wanted to write a sequel and tried and tried. But everything I wrote wouldn’t fit into a 32 page format and I really struggled for years. Finally (about 5 years later) I realized the story I wanted to tell just wasn’t meant to be a picture book and I should just write it and see where it went. It turned into the novel, THE YEAR OF THE DOG. Little did I know that it would begin a novel-writing career for me!

4. Tell us about the inspiration for WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON.

The book had many inspirations, but the most obvious one is Chinese folk and fairy tales. As I said earlier, when I was a child I tried to ignore my heritage as much as possible. However, because I loved to read, my mother was able to sneak in some culture by having me read Chinese folk and fairy tales. At the time, I didn’t think those stories had much effect on me. But when I grew older and traveled to China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, those stories came flooding back to me and twisted together to make a new story—the story that became WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON.

5. I enjoyed reading your blog . For those who haven’t read the story, share the excitement of getting “the call” from Newbery Committee Chair Katie O’Dell.

For a week or two before the big announcement, I was getting e-mails and congratulations on the “buzz” my book was getting, (it had won in a couple of Mock Newbery discussions), which was very nice, but a bit aggravating. I tried really hard to put it out of my head as I was afraid of jinxing myself as well as the probable disappointment. However, the night before the announcements, my editor said something about “having to be awake at 5:30 am.” I thought she meant that if I got “the call” it would come then.

So the next morning, I found myself awake at 5 am. The minutes ticked by and by 7 am the phone had not rung and I came to the sad conclusion that the book was not among the honored. I bucked myself up, told myself it was just an award and who cared anyway? It was not a big deal.

Then the phone rang and it was Katie O’Dell from the Newbery committee to tell me WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON had won the Newbery Honor! Suddenly, the award WAS a big deal. My emotions took a big 360 degree turnaround.

Later, I found out my editor meant she had to wake up at 5:30AM to go to a 6:30 AM breakfast to wait for calls that would come (hopefully) later that hour. Basically, I put myself through an emotional roller coaster due to poor listening skills.

6. How has winning a Newbery Honor changed your writing life?

In terms of actual writing and creation, it hasn’t changed too much—except now I feel the pressure of expectations. I worry more that people won’t like my new books—most recently I had a dream that the publisher printed the ARC of my new novel using my horrible first draft and a person flung it across the room in disgust, shouting, “And this is a Newbery Honor author?!” So much for subtleties, even my dreams are getting literal.

But, professionally, it’s been very gratifying. Before the Newbery Honor, my books were always labeled “multicultural.” I’d made peace with that label, even embraced it, but I knew the label also implied limits on readership and appeal. Upon being given the Newbery Honor, the multicultural label faded away. I was no longer “multicultural author/illustrator Grace Lin” but “Newbery Honor author Grace Lin” with the new implication that my books were for everyone. Of course, they had always been for everyone, but the Newbery Honor wiped away the preconceived notions and for the first time I felt like my book was widely read.

For me, there is nothing sadder than when you create something with all your heart and passion and realize that no one (or very few people care). So when the opposite happens, it is extremely wonderful. That was the amazing gift the Newbery Honor gave me.

7. Tell us about your latest picture book THANKING THE MOON.

This book is about the Autumn Moon Festival, a huge Asian holiday that many Westerners don’t seem to know about. Everyone knows about Chinese New Year, but the Moon Festival—which is kind of the equivalent to Thanksgiving—has been overlooked. It is one of my favorite Asian holidays as it is about thankfulness and harmony. I made the book in hopes that people will become familiar with the holiday as well as celebrate it on their own. We can never have too much thankfulness and harmony in the world!

8. You’ve also written an early reader LING AND TING NOT EXACTLY THE SAME. What are the challenges of writing in that genre?

Writing an early reader is the most difficult of all the genres I’ve written for. I felt strongly that this book should be an appropriate early reader book—nowadays some early readers break the rules and use words like “outrageous,” but that can be discouraging for a struggling reader. I really wanted this book to be something that fostered reading.

So, my editor and I checked each word in the Word Dictionary to make sure it was reading appropriate for the genre. We also made sentences contain ten word maximum and limited words that were more than two syllables. I tried to repeat words and sentence structures as much as possible without being too wooden. And above all this, the story had to be fun and interesting.

That is why I refuse to call LING AND TING and books in this genre easy readers. They aren’t easy! Not for the reader and not for the creator!

9. What tips do you have for aspiring author/illustrators?

Read, buy books and encourage others to do the same. If you wish to work in this industry you need to know what is out there and support it. Read for knowledge, to enrich what you yourself will create. Buy for self-preservation. A bookseller recently told me, “I think we’ll be lucky if we have about 10 more years of book selling.” The book industry is struggling, there is no denying it. Do your part to help keep it alive, so it will have the chance to publish your books!

10. Can you give us a preview of your upcoming projects?

My next novel is DUMPLING DAYS. It is a sequel to “THE YEAR OF THE DOG” and THE YEAR OF THE RAT. It is about Pacy’s first trip to Taiwan, her parents’ homeland. It comes out January 2012.

My next picture book is, “LI NA’S LILY.” It follows a taxi driver in Beijing, China who has been given a lily by his daughter. Right now I am in the sketch phase of this book and the ambitions are quite big for it so far. I hope I can pull it off, but I may have to tweak things. It’s scheduled for release in the Summer of 2012, but things tend to change…


  1. What a wonderful interview, Shannon and Grace Lin. Thank you!!!

  2. Thanks! As you know, I love interviewing other writers and finding the story behind the story.