Grace Lin is the award-winning author and illustrator of books for young readers including Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, The Year of the Dog, The Year of the Rat, and the Ling & Ting series, as well as picture books such as The Ugly Vegetables. Lin’s forthcoming picture book with her longtime editor at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, Alvina Ling, is A Big Bed for Little Snow, a companion to her Caldecott Honor book A Big Mooncake for Little Star. We asked Lin and Ling to interview each other about their friendship and collaboration.
Alvina Ling: Hi, Grace! I think we should start by sharing how we met. Do you remember?
Grace Lin: This is a really hard question for me, actually, because in The Year of the Dog, I wrote about how we met. Most people know that you are the character of Melody in The Year of the Dog, and the way I have us meet in that book is that we met in the school cafeteria. You were new, and we immediately saw each other because we were the only Asians in the whole school. The way I wrote it became so real to me that, now, sometimes I tell people that's truly how we met. I actually forget that that was fiction.
Ling: We actually met because my family was moving to upstate New York and a mutual friend told my parents, “Oh, there's another Taiwanese-American family living in New Hartford. You should meet them.” So, they introduced us, and I remember your family came over to my family's house. So that's how we met the first time; it was the summer before fifth grade. We talked about how we first met in our very first episode of our podcast Book Friends Forever, right?
Lin: Yes, we did.
Ling: That was a very subtle and very beautiful plug for our podcast! Yes, we were childhood friends, and then my family moved to California after three years, but we stayed in touch by writing letters back and forth.
Lin: So many letters! It was pre-email. We wrote piles and piles of letters to each other. Which is pretty amazing when you think about it.
Ling: Embarrassing letters.
Lin: Some of them were so silly! Do you remember the letter where you just wrote me all the lyrics of a Bon Jovi song?
Ling: Oh my gosh. Yeah. It was “Living on a Prayer.”
Lin: But I do remember in one of those letters, I told you that my dream was to become a Children’s book illustrator, I think. Do you remember that?
Ling: You did, yes! You said, “Someday, I’ll go into a bookstore and see a book will say ‘illustrated by Grace P. Lin.’ Wouldn't that be great?”
Lin: Even back then, I knew that I wanted to do something with books. It’s so interesting that it came to you later.
Ling: I had no idea what I wanted to do. You were writing your dreams about becoming a Children’s book illustrator, and I’m writing back lyrics to the Bon Jovi song.
Lin: I think we also sent each other books with those letters, or did I make that up, too?
Ling: We did send a few books, like the Cheerleaders books that we both owned.
Lin: Well, those Cheerleaders books were actually a big bonding thing for me and you. I look back at that, and I kind of laugh because they were kind of terrible books.
Ling: No offense!
Lin: No offense, but they were about these high school cheerleaders. Neither one of us were cheerleaders, right?
Ling: Yes neither of us had any interest or any ability in cheerleading.
Lin: And they were so unrealistic, right? All the cheerleaders had cars, and they did these incredible death-defying gymnastics and had dramatic love lives! But I know that the reason why I loved those Cheerleader books was because there was an Asian cheerleader. Remember Hope?
Ling: Yes! Hope Chang.
Lin: I just loved the fact that there was an Asian cheerleader. That was probably the first time I saw a modern character in a book that looked like me.
Ling: Yes, I think that was the first. I mean, that's why we bonded over them, it was the first kind of contemporary depiction of an Asian-American in books we were reading. She had Asian parents who were immigrants, who were strict, and she had to play violin. But she wanted to rebel.
Lin: By being a cheerleader!
Ling: And she dated a boy who rode a motorcycle and she started wearing leather jackets.
Lin: Well, actually, that was later in the series. I remember in the beginning of the series, she was such the good girl and I was a bit frustrated that the redheaded cheerleader got to date the basketball captain and have all these dramatic things happen to her, while Hope’s drama was that someone stole her sheet music and she couldn’t practice her violin.
Ling: I think if we had been maybe four years younger, then probably the series we would’ve bonded over would’ve been the Babysitters Club. I think we were too old for that series when it came out.
Lin: Yes, definitely! I remember vaguely seeing Claudia Kishi from that series and being impressed that she was the cool one. But we were too old for those books by then!
Ling: So, we bonded over books. I moved away. We wrote letters together, and when we were graduating, me from UC Berkeley and you from RISD, I went to Taiwan to study Mandarin and we kind of lost touch. But it was publishing that brought us together. While I was in Taiwan, trying to figure out what I wanted to do when I came back to the States, a friend had suggested that I look into book publishing because I was always reading, and so I did. I decided, okay, well, I have to move to the East Coast, and I decided on Boston, rather than New York because at the time, I didn't know anyone in New York, and so I told my parents my plan. My mom said, “You know who is living in Boston now? Grace Lin.”
Lin: And then you contacted me, and I said, “Oh, I just got my first contract for my very first children’s book. You should come be my roommate.”
Ling: Yes and so we did! I moved up there when your lease was up, then we were roommates. It was really fun because we were starting our publishing careers together on parallel tracks. I did a bunch of internships, including one at Charlesbridge, which was your publisher, and the Horn Book, and I eventually got my job as an editorial assistant at Little, Brown, which at the time was based in Boston, and that's where I've been ever since.
I remember, of course, we wanted to work together, because we thought that would be really fun, but I was just an assistant. At the time, you were writing and illustrating picture books, and you were mostly an illustrator back then, I think, right?
Lin: I was writing and illustrating my own picture books, but I was still on the green side; I think I had to kind of build a foundation before I could work with you at Little, Brown.
Ling: We came close a couple times, and then I remember at Little, Brown, we were starting to want to publish more middle grade and young adult novels. I remember telling you, “Do you have any ideas for novels? Because I think if you wrote a novel, I could really do something with that.” By then, I was maybe an assistant editor or even an associate editor.
Lin: I remember! When you said that to me, I said, “Oh, that’s so funny, because I’ve actually been working on something.”
Because, when Robert [Lin’s late husband] was going through cancer treatment, we spent a lot of time in the hospital, so I wasn't able to do a lot of painting. So, I actually turned to writing, and had started writing what was to become Year of the Dog, though I didn’t know it!
At that point, I wasn't sure exactly what it was that I was writing. What I had been trying to do was write a sequel to my picture book The Ugly Vegetables, but, whatever it was I was writing just would not fit in that short picture book format. It kept growing and growing, so when you said, “novel,” I thought, “Oh, hey, maybe it's a novel.”
Ling: And it was a great novel.
Lin: It was only at that children’s publishing professionals retreat, Kindling Words [in Burlington, Vt.] that I finally got the courage to show it to you, though.
Ling: Yeah. Of course, I loved it because it was about our childhood friendship, and so I found it delightful, but I didn’t know if maybe I was just biased because it was about us. So we worked on it together, and when I eventually brought it to our acquisitions meeting, everyone just fell in love with it. So, I thought, okay, good. It’s not just me! And it launched your career as a middle grade author!
Lin: It was also at Kindling Words that we made those bonfire wishes, remember?
Lin: There’s a Kindling Words tradition where, at their yearly bonfire, you write a wish for something and throw it in the fire, with the hope that by doing so will make it happen. That year, I remember you wrote, “I want to edit a book that wins a Newbery or a Caldecott award.” You were giggling so hard, when you told me and I, also giddy, then decided to write: “I want to make a book that wins the Newbery or the Caldecott.” We were both laughing so hard!
But I also remember right after laughing, I looked around to make sure nobody else heard me because I was kind of ashamed. I didn’t want somebody to hear what we were saying and think, “Who do you think you are, wishing to win the Caldecott, wishing to win the Newbery? You think that could ever come true?” I was so embarrassed and I really hoped nobody else heard… but I still threw the wish in the fire.
Ling: We both did!
Lin: And now I look back. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon won the Newbery Honor and A Big Mooncake for Little Star won the Caldecott Honor, so…
Ling: Yeah. I mean, that’s pretty amazing. I feel like we’ve had a nice career together.
Lin: I know. Amazing is the word for it. I think about that often, about throwing those wishes in the fire.
Ling: Right. I mean, we always have bold dreams. You know me. I’m all about goal setting. I feel like the first step to attaining your goal is actually having the goal. So if you set the goal and actually believe that it can come true, you’re kind of part way there already.
We’ve published, let’s see, I guess six middle grade novels together, and four early readers—the Ling & Ting series. And then last year, we published the first picture book that we worked on together, A Big Mooncake for Little Star. And then this year, your second picture book that we’ve worked on together is coming out.
Lin: Yes, and this is the second picture book that I've done in this kind of new style that I've been playing around with.
Ling: Right. This is the new Grace Lin era of picture books. So let’s talk about A Big Bed for Little Snow.
Lin: A Big Bed for Little Snow is the companion book to A Big Mooncake for Little Star. I feel like they are my homages to classic books, because I love the classics. For those who might not know, A Big Mooncake for Little Star was my homage to Blueberries for Sal. And A Big Bed for Little Snow is like my homage to The Snowy Day. I think the truth is, one of my dreams as a children’s book author and illustrator is to create a book that becomes a classic. A book that lives forever, and basically, a book like the ones that I loved as a child, and still love. So, of course, I’m using a lot of the books that I love as inspiration in hopes that that classic magic rubs off on it. One of the books that I loved was The Snowy Day. Everybody loves that book, right?
Ling: Right. That’s my favorite picture book for sure!
Lin: I have such a deep fondness for that book. It was actually the first book that I ever saw that had a non-white character in it. It made a very interesting impression on me because I remember my librarian sitting down and reading us a book. At the time, I was only in kindergarten and I knew there was something special about this book, something different. It was only later that I realized what it was. It was because it was the first book with a character in it that, just like me, didn’t look like any of my classmates. I didn’t look like any of my classmates. Peter didn’t look like any of my classmates. We were both different from them.
So I felt a kind of a kinship there, even though he was this African-American boy, and I was this Asian-American girl. But even with that kinship, I have to admit I wanted more. It was like that was a taste of what I wanted, but not exactly. To be honest, I just really wanted to see myself.
As years have gone by, I’ve often thought about that, and I’ve often thought, what was the Asian-American Snowy Day? The Snowy Day was such an important book in American literature. It was basically making a black character mainstream, right? Was there something like that for Asian Americans?
You know that Toni Morrison quote where she says something like, “If there’s a book that you can’t find, then you must write it, yourself.”
Lin: So, I started thinking, maybe I should make the Asian-American Snowy Day. But even as I thought that, I was intimidated. It’s that same thing we were talking about when we were throwing the wishes into the fire. It’s the, “who do I think I am?” plague of thoughts. I felt like everyone would be like, “How dare you think you can write the Asian-American Snowy Day?” But I think sometimes, you just have to dare, right?
Ling: I think that’s true. I always tell people that the books that we work on together are the books that we both wished existed when we were kids. I hope that we will make many, many more books, and all of them what we wished existed when we were younger.
Lin: Yes, definitely. I feel like all of the books that I make are basically wish fulfillment. Even Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is fulfilling my childhood wish for a fairytale with a heroine that looked like me.
Ling: Right, that’s awesome. So, in addition to being author/illustrator, and editor, we decided early this year to launch a podcast together, called Book Friends Forever. It’s a weekly podcast where we catch up on each other’s lives. We talk about what’s on our minds, take a trip down memory lane, and then we always end with what we’re grateful for, and it’s been really fun.
Lin: Yeah, it’s been great. It's a really cool way for us to keep connected and a fun way to reach our audience.
Ling: I think what’s been really great about our friendship, in addition to working together on a professional level and also being friends in our personal lives, is that we’ve gotten to experiment together. Back in the day, when blogging was a thing, we started a group blog together, called Blue Rose Girls. We did that for quite a few years, and then now, we’re trying to stay relevant, but also, we both love podcasts!
I think we have such a unique story that we’ve felt like we had something to say. We hoped we have something interesting to say and to share with people.
Lin: It’s a way of connecting with people, right? I hope it’s also an interesting way for people to see the creators behind the books, to personalize the process and give a little bit more insight on how to navigate the children’s book world. And it’s just super fun!
Lin: I hope people have as much fun listening to it as we do making it!
Ling: Yes. I hope so, too. So, we'll be Book Friends Forever. Won’t we, Grace?
Lin: Of course! Friends in infinity!
A Big Bed for Little Snow by Grace Lin. Little, Brown, $18.99 Oct. 15 ISBN 978-0-316 47836-6