“Your work is to discover the world and then with all your heart give yourself to it.” ~ Buddha
Last year, children’s author/illustrator Grace Lin was asked in an Edge of the Forest interview what she would say if she had the complete attention of everyone in the United States for thirty seconds. Grace quoted Buddha, and if the body of work she’s produced during the last 10 years is any indication, she has definitely lived by those words.
Talented, prolific, critically acclaimed and beloved by her readers, Grace has illustrated ten picture books and written and illustrated a dozen more. Her use of bold colors, intricate patterns, swirls, and charming details mark a distinctive style that engages, delights, and invites the reader to look closer.
In 2006, Grace’s first middle grade novel, The Year of the Dog, received tons of accolades, including Kirkus Best Early Chapter Book, ALA Notable Book for Children, and a National Parenting Publication Gold Award. The Year of the Dog is autobiographical, picking up where her picture books, The Ugly Vegetables, Dim Sum for Everyone, Fortune Cookie Fortunes, and Kite Flying leave off. Readers everywhere have fallen in love with Pacy Lin, her best friend, Melody, and her sisters, Lissy and Ki-Ki.
This year, a much-anticipated sequel, The Year of the Rat, was released along with yet another gorgeous picture book, Bringing in the New Year. In The Year of the Rat, we are treated to more of Pacy’s joyous, funny, and poignant experiences. Much like the classic Little House or Ramona books, these stories leave us craving more about this family and Pacy’s world, so full are they of heart and universal truth. Bringing in the New Year focuses on the preparations for Lunar New Year, complete with homemade dumplings and a dragon dance, with pictures that pull us right into the action.
I couldn’t think of a better way to top off Tea Party Month, than with Grace as my special guest of honor. I’m sure you’ve noticed how often she writes about food, using it as both subject and metaphor. She’s definitely my kind of girl — and she’s even brought cupcakes!
You’ve said that The Year of the Rat is your most revealing work, since it forced you to examine your own prejudices. The main character, Pacy, doesn’t want to be associated with the new Chinese boy, Dun-Wei, because small things about him make him “stick out like a big mistake.” Were any of your own preconceived notions about China or Taiwan altered after visiting these two places? Were you pleased or surprised by how Americans were treated?
Both places were so much more vibrant and richer than I imagined. But there were more small differences than I anticipated. For example, purchasing things in China is a multi-step process; bargaining is always expected. In Taiwan, the garbage trucks play music that sound like American ice cream trucks. Those unexpected little things made me realize how wonderful and important it is to experience other cultures in person.
In China, it seemed like many considered foreigners to be rich, which made me a target for possible scams and bad ends of many bargains. But other than that, I think Americans are treated well, though a little bit like animals at a zoo depending on where you go. I remember a group of waiters being fascinated by my sister and me — first, that we were sisters (a rarity in one-child policy China), and that we could barely communicate in Chinese.
Taiwan, being more westernized, did not have the “scam the foreigner” problem, though bargaining was definitely to the native’s advantage. And all wanted to know what country I was from.
Many of your books are either about food, or include tasty references to food. In The Year of the Rat, food is used to describe people (Sam Mercer looked like a giant gingerbread cookie), the landscape (a streak of light in the sky looks like “milk just poured into tea”), and emotions (Pacy “felt like a popcorn kernel about to pop”). Is this how Grace Lin sees the world? How would you describe yourself in terms of food?
Well, I learned in Taiwan that the Chinese character for “beauty” is actually made up of the characters for “big” and “sheep.” A big sheep obviously meant a delicious meal; the character implies a beautiful taste. So, early Chinese equated good food with beauty, which is something I do as well! Though, I would prefer not to think of myself as a fat sheep.
Along with the succulent descriptions of the New Year’s dinners which frame the book, I love the funny chapter about Melody’s mother and her tasteless, healthy cooking, and the poignant canned meat story told by Pacy’s mother. Did these things actually happen? For the most part, are the tales related by Pacy’s mother actually ones your mother told you?
The chapter about Melody’s mother’s healthy cooking is based on true life. The character of Melody, as many people know, is based on my friend and editor Alvina Ling. Her mother was and still is very health conscious, and her cooking was a bit of a joke amongst the Taiwanese community — she herself told me how people say, “when I go to your house to eat, you make me eat grass.” Anyway, I swear she served us a macrobiotic dinner when I first went to Alvina’s house, though Alvina says she did not.
Grace and Alvina then and now
All the stories that Pacy’s mother tells are the stories my mother told me. The ones in The Year of the Dog are pretty much true and almost all the ones in The Year of the Rat are true as well; the ones that are not exactly true were based on real events — the canned meat story actually happened to an aunt.
Both The Year of the Dog and The Year of the Rat are brimming with so many wonderful cultural traditions. Did you have to do much research regarding these, or were most of them pretty much second nature to you?
It was a mixture of both, though probably more research than you might guess. What was really fun while doing research was discovering that things that my family had always done but I had never thought of were actually Chinese customs with ancient reasoning. For example, we always had nine courses at a Chinese wedding — I just thought we had nine courses because that was what the restaurant preferred; when in reality it is to symbolize the “forever” nature of the marriage (the Chinese word for nine sounds like the word forever).
It was even more humorous when I mentioned these things to my parents. Sometimes they nodded, “of course,” as if I should have known by some sort of osmosis; and other times, they were surprised themselves. I guess their parents assumed that they would know through osmosis as well.
Which is easier for you, writing or illustrating? What are some of the special challenges involved in writing autobiographical stories? Multicultural stories?
It’s hard to say as it is like apples and oranges. However, for me the writing always has to come before the illustrating; the writing is what dictates the illustrating.
I think the biggest challenge when writing autobiographical stories is to really let go. Many times people like to keep things private; don’t want others to know embarrassing or personal thoughts. But those are the things that are most interesting and perhaps what you most want to tell. Once you let that go, truly open yourself up to the page — then real writing happens. After that, the challenge is to figure out what events are interesting to an audience, not just yourself because it happened to you.
My parents definitely like Year of the Dog best; in fact, I think writing that book was what finally made them do the 360 degree turnabout on my career. Before that, they were always a bit hesitant. The Year of the Dog was the book that made them not only understand what I was doing but appreciate it. It helped that it was about them, of course!
Ki-Ki’s favorite is Okie-Dokie, Artichokie!, a book that went out of print quickly. The joke is if she likes the book, it won’t do well; which may be why there is no Ki-Ki book yet. But perhaps I will attempt to thwart the Ki-Ki curses in the future.
Could you explain how you made the pictures for Bringing in the New Year? And I have to ask about your trademark swirls! When and why did you start incorporating them in your illustrations?
Bringing in the New Year was fairly straightforward, as most of the images I could draw straight from my head. I did look at photos of dragon and lion costumes, Chinese patterns for the clothing, etc., but it was not a book that needed huge amounts of photo references or research for me. That is probably where I am at my best, when I am not bound by too many real details and so I can concentrate on the details in my head.
Rough sketch from BRINGING IN THE NEW YEAR
The swirls are something I began at the end of my senior year at RISD (Rhode Island School of Design). I loved bright colors and graphic shapes, but flat planes of color were not satisfying enough for me. I enjoyed adding intricate patterns on people’s clothes, so putting patterns on everything just kind of spilled over. When I do patterns, I like to tie it into the concept or idea of what I am painting — like in Lissy’s Friends, which is about origami, all the patterns in the book are inspired by origami paper. So, I did the swirls in the sky as a kind of Van Gogh “Starry Night” homage pattern and I liked how it gave a texture but still fell back — and it’s stuck ever since.
What is the typical timeline for one of your picture books?It’s hard to say a typical timeline for my picture books. The range from idea to dummy to painting has been anywhere from 2 years to 10. Once a book is contracted, it takes me at least 6 months to do the finished art — but usually I’ve worked on the project for a long time before that. I tend to get books contracted at the dummy stage — when everything is pretty much ready to go to final.
From the delightful endpapers to the absolutely stunning gatefold spread at the end, the art for Bringing in the New Year is really a tour de force of composition, color, detail, and emotive energy. Do you consider it your best work? How are you challenging yourself to maintain this high standard, while continuing to grow and move in new directions as an artist?
I am happy with the art in Bringing in the New Year. There are a couple of pieces I wish I could redo, but it is probably the published book I am most satisfied with artistically as a whole. I’m not sure if it is my best work — I guess I am hoping my best work is still to come!
In the last couple of years I’ve been doing books very quickly with very long hours, more out of financial necessity than artistic discipline. I feel confident that my new schedule of more time for fewer projects will make my work better.
But honestly, I don’t really think about “growing” or “challenging myself” too much. I try to take each project individually and do the art in the best way that fits the story — I don’t go into a project saying, “I want to break out and do oil painting so I’m going to make the art look like Michelangelo’s!” The story always comes first for me; if I think a story needs a new style (for example, I recently wrote a truck picture book which I visualize with collage elements), I will do it. But I let the story dictate the pictures — not a desire to paint landscapes or flowers (though if I have those desires, I try to write stories about them). Anyway, perhaps all of this is sacrilegious of me to say as an artist and former art student!
What are you working on now? Any genres you haven’t yet tried, but would like to?
Right now, I am finishing up final (I hope) revisions for my new novel, tentatively titled, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. It is a Chinese folktale-inspired fantasy, very different from my prior books. I guess this is an example of what I was talking about in the above question — I am going to try to make the images more decorative, like cloisonne or willowware patterns, as I feel this book calls for a more formal style. I’m very excited about this book; I think it is my best writing to date and I am kind of bursting with pride over it. Though that might be a short-lived feeling!
After this novel is finished, I will be working on Ling and Ting, which will be an early reader featuring Asian American twins. I’m so happy to be working in the genre; my favorite books when I was young were books like Frog and Toad, Snip, Snap and Snurr, and Flicka, Dicka, and Ricka; to do this book is really a great gift to my childhood self. Since the writing in this book will be spare and stylized, the illustrations are also going to be more stylized and simpler than my picture books — another example of my answer to the above question!
I’ve played around with the idea of a graphic novel, a YA novel, even an adult book — but none of them have really taken root. Most recently, I’ve been thinking a pop-up book would be a lot of fun. That and dishware design. Maybe someday!
Please describe a typical, non-school visit day.
Oh dear, I’m really very boring. I wake up, eat, check my email and surf the net under the guise of “industry research,” which usually meanders its way to “book idea research.” Then, when I am horrified at the amount of time I have spent sitting on my bum “researching” (probably while eating at the same time), I go outside and ride my bike or go to the gym for an hour or two. Then I return home and either write, draw or paint — trying all the while not to get sucked back into “researching.” Of course I envitably do, and the rest of the day is filled with the back and forth battles of concrete work vs. pretend work. This usually goes on until I go to sleep at night, unless I am seeing friends for dinner or someone comes over to play video games (!). Depending on deadlines and/or the next day’s schedule, I go to bed at around 11 p.m. – 2 a.m. Of course everyday errands such as cleaning, groceries, etc., get jumbled in, but all in all, I have a pretty quiet life. I hope that wasn’t too disillusioning!
Describe yourself in 5 words.
constantly battling my sweet tooth
5 highlights of your career thus far.
In order of personal preference:
1. Getting fan mail, (like this).
2. Being invited toHong Kong to visit the International School there.
3. Seeing a theatrical performance of my books (like this one).
4. Havinga doll made from my book.
5. Being on the “Today Show” (this I am not too crazy about because I think I come off as a dorky, nervous robot, as well as the bittersweet nature of the fundraiser, but it was extremely memorable).
Passions besides making children’s books.
Passions? Spending time with people I care about, preferably doing fun things like traveling the world or eating. Interests? Riding my bike, decorating, baking and eating cupcakes, reading and eating at the same time (usually eating the food that I am reading about), eating candy, online shopping, knitting, and eating (wait, I think I said that one already).
5 favorite foods.
Cupcakes, candy, ice cream, dim sum, dumplings.
Your 3 fondest wishes.
1. To live a long life full of joy and love, with people who bring me both.
2. To have a healthy, happy child that grows up into a healthy, happy adult.
3. To be creating and publishing books successfully until I am ninety, with at least one book that is a “classic,” beloved for ages and never goes out of print.
Since you write about food a lot, do you like to cook? What food inspires your best work?
I’m a much better food eater than food maker. Appetizers, entrees — “real food,” I’m not that great at. I do make desserts, however! My specialties are coconut sorbet and red velvet cupcakes.
The food that inspires my best work is candy, preferably candied ginger, but any candy will do. Somehow, I need constant sugar when I am writing. During the writing of my most recent novel, I went through at least a bag of candied ginger a day. Now that I think about it, that’s kind of horrifying. But true.
I am intrigued by your wish to be a cake decorator. Which do you like best — baking, decorating, or eating cupcakes?
Preference order: decorating, eating, baking.
The trick to good cupcakes is to use foil cups, not paper ones. The foil ones keep the cake moist and light. Another good tip is to always substitute all purpose flour with cake flour. Cake flour gives the cake a more delicate texture, but if you make the switch it is one cup plus 2 tablespoons of cake flour for every one cup of all purpose flour.
In honor of all the candied ginger I ate during the writing of my latest novel (I am starting to think maybe I should make mention of it in the dedication), I will share my gingerbread cupcake with candied ginger icing recipe:
1 stick unsalted butter, room temp
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
2/3 cup molasses
2 tsp lemon zest
2-1/2 cups all purpose flour
1-1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1-1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1 cup sour cream
1. Preheat oven to 375. Insert liners into cupcake pan (use foil liners!).
2. In large bowl, cream the butter and sugars together until fluffy. Add egg, molasses and lemon zest. Beat well.
3. In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger & cloves (if you substitute for cake flour it is 2-1/2 cups plus 5 T of cake flour).
4. Add portions of dry ingredients to creamed mixture, alternating with portions of sour cream until completely integrated.
5. Fill cupcake liners 3/4 full. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until inserted toothpick comes out clean. Cool in pan.
CANDIED GINGER ICING
1 8-oz pkg cream cheese, room temp
3/4 stick of unsalted butter, room temp
3 cups confectionary sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp ground ginger
handful of candied ginger, finely chopped
1. In a medium bowl cream together cream cheese and butter until smooth.
2. Slowly sift in confectionary sugar and ground ginger until there are no more lumps.
3. Mix vanilla and candied ginger until fully integrated.
For more about Grace and her work, visit her beautiful website. There you will find detailed information about school visits, reviews, coloring pages and crafts, “behind the book” tidbits, essays, a press kit, FAQ’s and other fun stuff.
Grace is one of ten authors being featured at Fusion Stories, celebrating Asian Pacific American Heritage Month during May 2008. Read more about The Year of the Rat and other new novels for middle grade and teen readers that focus on the contemporary Asian Pacific American experience!
Some other online interviews featuring Grace Lin:
**All spreads posted by permission, © 2008 Grace Lin, All Rights Reserved.