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Interview with author/illustrator Grace Lin
by Aline Pereira*

Grace Lin grew up in Upstate New York with her parents and two sisters. Surprisingly enough, being an artist was not Grace's first choice. She first dreamed of being a champion ice skater, and drew many pictures of herself twirling and dancing on the ice. Unfortunately, Grace had neither the talent nor coordination to make it to skating stardom. However, the pictures she drew of herself held much promise and quickly became her career focus.

After attending the Rhode Island School of Design, Grace quickly set out to achieve her dream of creating children's books. Her first book, The Ugly Vegetables, was published in 1999. Since then she has written and illustrated over a dozen picture books as well as three middle-grade novels.

Grace's most recent book, the award-winning Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, was selected for inclusion in the 2010 Spirit of PaperTigers Project.

She lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.
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Your book Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, an Asian-inspired fantasy, has been garnering many accolades, including a recently announced Newbery Honor. How did the book come about and what type of research did you do for it?

I grew up in Upstate NY, the only Asian (except for my own sisters) in my school. Because of this, my childhood was always tinged with a strange sense of identity. Was I Chinese? Taiwanese? American?

Books and stories were always a source of comfort. I loved folk tales and fairy tales as a child. I loved the classics, “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” “The Light Princess,” and "The Wizard of Oz" — all with gorgeous illustrations, which I devoured and gazed at in awe.

It was because of my love for these stories that my mother knew she could pique my interest with Chinese fairy tale books. At the time, she regretted that I had so little interest in our cultural heritage — this was a way of “sneaking” it in. And it worked!

When I first began reading the Chinese folk tales I was disappointed. Used to the lush illustrations of American books, the Asian books, with occasional simple b&w line drawings, seemed to me plain and inadequate in comparison. However, slowly, as I discovered the magic in those stories, 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 started to come alive.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, a mixture of Asian fairy tales and North American classics, came into existence as an homage to the folk tales and fairy tales I read in my youth. Not a traditional retelling of stories from either culture, but a mix –– like me, Asian-American.  I think the story has enough magic from both sides to satisfy readers everywhere.

What message do you hope Where the Mountain Meets the Moon sends to children?
 
I am always a tad reluctant to say what the message of my books are, as I prefer that readers come up with their own interpretations and understanding of the story.  But I guess what I wanted to convey with Where the Mountain Meets the Moon was that as long as you have someone to love and are loved in return, you are lucky and have a fortune you should be thankful for.  This is something I truly believe.

What are some of the responses you have had from children so far, regarding the book?

I’ve had many lovely responses from children. The most memorable one so far came from a 5th grade girl who left an extremely long comment on my blog about all the things she loved about the book. It was so sweet and thoughtful... My favorite part was when she said, “… the words come together to make visual pictures and I can see myself standing there, the red thread unwinding, the dragon finally flying. One of the folktales, the one about the village of Moon Rain’s ancestors, was written so perfectly, I read it over and over until I practically memorized it.” To be able to touch a reader like that... what more could an author ask for?

Full-color illustrated books for middle readers aren’t very common. How hard was it to convince your publisher to agree to full-color plate illustrations for Where the Mountain Meets the Moon?

I used to love the illustrated middle-grade books when I was younger, and I still do. I think they add so much to the experience of reading. To me, they are perfect — they give a glimpse of visualization into the world you are reading about, but not so much that you aren’t left with anything to imagine. Also, they make the experience of owning and holding a book feel that much more special — turning the page and seeing a full color illustration is almost like discovering a jewel, and the book itself feels like a little treasure.

Nowadays, full-color books are very uncommon. But I really wished my book to have that feeling of the books that I adored when I was younger, so I begged my editor (who is also my good friend) Alvina Ling to see if color illustrations could be possible. It was not easy, but Alvina was able to convince the publisher to print the book with full color illustrations by using Castle Corona by Sharon Creech as an example, as well as other convincing arguments. With so much doom and gloom about the future of publishing, to create books that are not cheap throw-aways, but are beautiful objects to enjoy, is something to consider. I’d like to see more such books being published –– and hope to do more of them myself!

Your heritage seems to play a big role in your work as a book creator. What does it mean to you to be of Chinese ancestry?

A lot of my books deal with Chinese culture because, in a way, I’m trying to find the culture I lost.  When I was younger, I was ashamed, sometimes even angry, about being Chinese. Most of the time, though, I forgot that I was Chinese. Sometimes I would look at myself in the mirror and be surprised to find a Chinese girl looking back at me.

Only after becoming an adult did I realize I had lost something by ignoring my heritage. There were traditions that my family followed, such as eating ginger soup at a baby shower, which I never bothered to learn more about.  So now, I research these kinds of things about my heritage. I’m making the books I missed reading when I was younger — I’m writing about the things that I want to know more about.

As someone who both writes and illustrates, what comes to you first, words or images?

There might be one image in my mind that inspires me, but the words always come before I do any drawing.

How do you think your art and writing have changed since the publication of your first book, The Ugly Vegetables, in 1999?

I like to think that my art and writing have become more refined over the years. I definitely create with more confidence now, which means I allow myself to take more risks. However, I think  the core of my work, my general vision, has remained the same.

As a reader, what types of children’s books most attract you and why?

Well, I love the genre I work in — middle-grade novels and picture books. I tend to like books that are heartwarming and have a timeless feel — I usually don’t enjoy “edgy” books or anything that makes me feel anxious. The books I loved as a child and still love are the “Shoes” books by Noel Streatfield (I think my favorite is Family Shoes), anything by Rumer Godden (I love Miss Happiness and Miss Flower),  anything by Beverly Cleary (Ramona and Her Father still makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside), the Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace, anything by Ruth Chew (The Witch’s Buttons!).  I also LOVED A Sundae With Judy by Frieda Friedman (which was the absolute first middle-grade book I read that had an Asian character in it), A Search For Delicious by Natalie Babbit,  and, of course the Narnia Books and the Oz books.

I am ashamed to say I am not as well-read on recently published books (I’m the kind of person that can read the same book over and over again, and I tend to read my favorites!). But some of the more recent books that I love are Masterpiece by Elise Broach, the Alvin Ho books by Lenore Look,  and Blow Out the Moon by Libby Koponen.

What are you working on now?

My next book will be Ling and Ting. It is an early-reader book, a format I had been wanting to try for a while, about Chinese-American twins. It is almost the reverse theme of the Year of the Dog; by choosing twins as my main characters, I am trying to show how even when people look excatly the same, they can be different.

After that I have a picture book about the Moon Festival and a picture book set in Beijing. In the meantime, I have started preliminary drafts for a novel that may become The Dumpling Summer, to take place in between my past novels Year of the Dog and the Year of the Rat.

While I have no plans of writing a sequel to Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, I do plan on writing another Asian folktale-fantasy. I had many more stories swimming in my head that I didn’t get to use for Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. Now they are all bursting to come out!

If you were to pick a place anywhere in the world to send Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, where would it be, and why? 

I’d like to send the book to myself when I was 10 years old. Partly because it is the kind of book that I wanted and needed and didn't have when I was a child, and partly to tell my younger self, “Have faith, you will someday accomplish your dream.”

*Aline Pereira is PaperTigers' Managing Editor .

Posted February 2010

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interviwee- Grace Lin


Grace Lin- photo

by Grace Lin:

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon
(Little, Brown BYR, 2009)

Year of the Rat
(Little, Brown BYR, 2008)

Bringing in the New Year
(Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2008)

The Red Thread
(Albert Whitman, 2007)

Lissy's Friends
(Viking, 2007)

written by Xiaohong Wang
One Year in Beijing

(ChinaSprout, 2006)

Year of the Dog
(Little, Brown BYR, 2006)

written by Paul Yee
The Jade Necklace

(Tradewind Books, 2002)

Dim Sum for Everyone!
(Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2001)

The Ugly Vegetables
(Charlesbridge, 1999)

For a complete bibiography and more information, visit her website, blog and Facebook page.

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More on PaperTigers:

Check out Grace Lin's two gallery features (1, 2)

Take a look at the 2010 Spirit of PaperTigers Book Set, which includes Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.

Read Grace Lin's article
"The Extra Adjective: How I Came to Terms with Being a Multicultural Book Author"


More on the web:

Grace in her own words...

Read an interview with the author at Xiaoning's Blog.

See a video of Grace flipping through the pages of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon to show its full-color illustrations (including her personal favorite!)

 



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