Over the years, author-illustrator Grace Lin has mined her own childhood for funny, upbeat stories that shed light on the unique experience of growing up Asian-American. The past year has been a good one for Lin, with her novel, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, winning a 2010 Newbery Honor and earning a selection on Al Roker's Book Club for Kids. Known for her novels and her vibrantly illustrated picture books, Lin is now reaching out to the audience in between. Her first early reader, Ling & Ting: Not Exactly the Same (Little, Brown), features twin Asian-American girls.
What inspired you to write for this age group?
I've always wanted to write an early reader. When I wrote my first novel my goal was to make it an early reader, but it grew beyond the category. One thing that inspired this particular book was some really, really old early readers that I loved when I was a child: Snipp, Snapp and Snurr and Flicka, Ricka and Dicka. It was a series about triplets who had these little adventures. They were really bizarre; they must have been old books in the library that no one had ever thrown out.
But something about them captivated you.
They were triplets. They were blond, blue-eyed children that were so different from me, yet I found them so fascinating. I loved those books, but the one thing that I always felt was missing was somebody who looked like me. In general, I wished that about all the books I read, like, gee, I wish Betsy had an Asian friend. So when I started writing books, I thought about the books that I had loved and I thought it would be really fun to have an Asian Snipp, Snapp and Snurr.
Why did you choose to write about twins instead?
When I first wrote this book it was about triplets. But then I started to feel really weird about it. I didn't want to propagate that whole stereotype out there that all Asians look alike, so I put the idea on the shelf for a while. Then I went to an event where I met a pair of Chinese-American twins. They were just so cute, so adorable, and they looked exactly the same. They were sharing cookies, but I noticed they were eating them in such different ways. One had cookie crumbs all over her face while the other was eating very delicately. Something about that really touched me. It gave me the idea of how people who look exactly the same can also be very different. It's like the reverse of a lot of my other books, that are about how people can look really different but still have a lot of similarities.
The book is made up of six slice-of-life stories. In one, Ting sneezes at an inopportune moment while getting a haircut. In another, her dumplings turn out lumpy. Did these stories come from your own experience?
Yes, all of these stories are close to things that happened in real life. I didn't sneeze, but I once cut my own hair with disastrous consequences. And I remember my mom making lots of jokes about the dumplings being too thick. Actually, I think all of us kids made lumpy dumplings while my mom made the beautiful, thin ones.
What's challenging about writing an early reader?
It's harder than a novel and harder than a picture book by far, because the writing has to be so disciplined. There are all these kinds of rules that my editor and I researched. In general, you shouldn't have more than 10 words per sentence and your words shouldn't have more than three syllables. We tried to keep every word at a grade one or two level of vocabulary, which was hard. For example, in one of the stories Ling does a magic trick. The word "magic" is in the correct level, but "magician" is not. So I had to figure out ways to write the stories without using words that were too hard.
And what's rewarding?
When I meet children at book signings, they'll bring me photos of when I first met them many years ago when they were reading my picture books, and now they're telling me how much they enjoy my novels. The early readers are in-between books for the kids who aren't ready for novels yet but are done with my picture books. It's really rewarding to think that they can grow up reading my books at all the different levels.
If you could go back in time and share one of your books with your younger self, which one would you choose?
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. When I was younger I was very princessy. I always wanted to be blond-haired and blue-eyed. This was before Mulan, so I was very upset about all the Cinderellas. I always tried to imagine that maybe Snow White was Chinese since she had black hair. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon would be the kind of princessy, fairy tale kind of book that I could have clung to and said, "I could be this heroine."
Do you see a series in Ling and Ting's future?
I really hope so because I think it would be great fun. But we're waiting to see how this one is received before I start another one. I'm crossing my fingers.
What other themes would you like to tackle in future installments?
For this first book, I asked seven or eight pairs of twins lots of questions and didn’t get to use all their answers. So I'm saving some for the next books. I think it's interesting how twins have to share a birthday, so I asked do you get two cakes? Do you each get your own party? I think it would be fun do something about Ling and Ting having to share their birthday.
What has been the best part of winning the Newbery Honor for Where the Mountain Meets the Moon?
Before winning, my books were kind of niche. A lot of the people who read them were Asian-American girls, which felt like a really small population. But since I won the Newbery Honor, I've felt like I'm able to reach many more readers. I'm very proud of being a multicultural author and illustrator, but for the first time I felt like the "multicultural" adjective wasn't as important. Now, after winning, it was more about "Grace Lin, author and illustrator" than "Grace Lin, multicultural author and illustrator."
We've touched on this, but can you explain a little more about why it's important for you to create books with Asian-American themes?
I grew up as a Twinkie––yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Where I grew up in upstate New York there were no other minorities, so I kind of forgot that I was Asian. Sometimes it was a rude awakening when I would see myself in the mirror and realize that I wasn't Caucasian. One reason I do these books is that it would have been nice to see in a book someone who looked like me. The other reason is that because I still feel like a Twinkie, the books give me an excuse to find out more about my own culture. For example, I didn't know much about my parents' life in Taiwan. Part of the reason I wrote The Year of the Dog and The Year of the Rat was so that I could talk to them about it.
When did you decide to become a children's book author/illustrator, and how did you get started?
I entered a book contest in the seventh grade and won fourth place. I was so excited about winning that I decided, "I'm going to be an author and illustrator forever!" And actually, many years later I went back to see who won first place and it was Dav Pilkey. And I thought, well, if I had to lose, I guess it makes sense that I'd lose to him.
Obviously you stuck with your plan. What steps did you take?
I went to Rhode Island School of Design, to the horror of my parents. Because they are from Taiwan, going to art school seemed so foreign to them. It was almost like me saying, "I want to go to Mars." But they trusted and supported me the best they could. After graduation, I sent out maybe a million postcards and promos to publishers, without much response. For a couple of years I worked fulltime designing T-shirts and mugs. When I got laid off, I took the severance package and went to New York, dropped off my portfolio and met with people. When I got back home, I got a phone call from Harold Underdown, who was senior editor at Charlesbridge then. He said, "I really like your new samples. Do you have a story to go along with them?" I said, "Yes, I do," even though I didn't. In the next week I wrote The Ugly Vegetables, which became my very first book.
What has shaped your illustration style?
While I was in school we studied the great European artists, but I started feeling really strange about the art that I was doing. I started to realize that I did not really know any Asian art at all. When I started looking at it on my own, what I really liked was Chinese folk art, which is very bright colors, a lot of pattern, very flat, not paying too much attention to perspective. At the same time, we were studying Matisse who was doing a similar thing, but in a different way. I tried to mix those two together to make my own style, kind of Asian-American. I wanted my style to reflect the mix that I felt that I was.
And your writing style?
I see that same mix. Even though Where Mountain Meets the Moon is more Asian, I feel that it is an Asian-American story. Also, as a child my favorite books were Anne of Green Gables, any book by Noel Streatfeild or Natalie Babbitt. I love them because they are so timeless and so heartwarming. That's what I strive to put in my books too.
What are you working on right now?
Dumpling Days, which is a companion book to The Year of the Dog and The Year of the Rat. It takes place in the summer when Pacy's family goes to Taiwan. I also have rough outlines for two companion books to the Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. And I have a picture book coming out this fall, called Thanking the Moon: Celebrating the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival.
Now that you've added early readers to your repertoire, is there another genre that you'd like to tackle?
Baby books. And I always dream of doing other, different types of books like cookbooks—even though I don't know how to cook. And mysteries, which I've tried once or twice but have always put away because I find it very difficult. But hopefully that's a challenge I'll be up to—way, way in the future.
Ling & Ting: Not Exactly the Same by Grace Lin. Little, Brown, $14.99 July ISBN 978-0-316-02452-5