Author/Illustrator Interview: Grace Lin

Sunday, April 11, 2010

I am absolutely THRILLED to be interviewing Grace Lin today! Grace Lin is a Taiwanese American children's book author and illustrator - and a really impressive one at that. Her work is always charming and endearing. And her work is always excellent storytelling.

Grace's most recent book is the Newbery Honor-winning middle grade fantasy novel Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is one of my favorite children's books (click here to read my review of it). Grace's next book is the easy reader Ling & Ting: Not Exactly the Same!, which is out in July.

Hi, Grace! Welcome!

What were you like as a young reader?


Well, I have to admit my tastes have not changed a great deal since then. I love to read but if the book does not have a happy ending, I feel completely gypped (as a young reader, I threw away my copy of CS Lewis' The Last Battle with a great deal of disgust). I tend to like "cozy" books--books that are heartwarming and timeless. And when I love a book, I LOVE it. I reread books over and over again, I never get tired of the books I love.

What were you like as a young artist?

Reading, writing, drawing and painting were always my favorite things. In early elementary school I loved Richard Scarry and would trace his drawings repeatedly. Then, somewhere between 6th and 7th grade, I became a unicorn and princess girl and I adored the illustrations by the classic illustrators Arthur Rackham and Kay Nielson, even though I could not paint or draw like them. This adulation would continue until I went to art school where I came to the realization that I would never be able to paint like Maxfield Parrish and that was okay. I could only draw and paint like me, Grace Lin, and instead of trying to copy someone else, I should find a way of painting and drawing that was my own.

Can you please guide us through the creative process you use when you are working on a book?

Hmm, every book is different so it's hard to give a general answer. Usually, I'll have an idea or motif swimming around my head for a long time, sometimes years. For example, I pictured large origami animals for years before finally making Lissy's Friends and kept thinking about goldfish before having one in Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. (I write a little about this in my post here). Sometimes it takes a long time before those images can find their way into their story.


But when the story finally comes, it is usually a building of words a bit at a time. Many authors talk about characters "speaking to them" or having the story flow out of them. It doesn't really work like that for me, it is usually more of me just unromantically pegging away. I always write the story first, though once in a while I will do a rough drawing as an inspiration. But I never make full painted illustrations until the story is done. Even though I am an illustrator, I feel that pictures should match the story--not the other way around.


Because after countless revisions, I usually start the images. I try to have the art correlate to the stories, but still have my own visual voice. For example, for Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, since the story was very much inspired by ancient Chinese folktales, I made the art a bit more traditional looking. In my upcoming book, Ling & Ting, since it is an early reader with simple language, I let the art be less complex and more graphic. I try to adapt my style for the content of the book.


Who are your favorite authors? How have they influenced your own writing?

My favorite classic authors are Lucy Maud Montgomery (I even went to PEI to see Green Gables!), Noel Streatfeild, Natalie Babbitt, Rumer Godden, Carolyn Haywood, Beverly Cleary, Maud Hart Lovelace, and Eleanor Estes. Of course there are many, many more, but those are the ones on the top of the list. They all influence my writing in different ways but what inspires me the most of all of them is how timeless most of their books are. I feel that any child could read them and relate to them and they will always be wonderful reads. That is what I aspire my books to be like.



Grace, your books ARE like that!

Who are your favorite artists, illustrators, and graphic designers? How have they influenced your own artwork?


My favorite classic illustrators were the ones I mentioned above (Richard Scarry, Arthur Rackham) as well as Tasha Tudor and Trina Schart Hyman, but there are numerous contemporary illustrators I admire as well: Elisa Kleven, Sophie Blackall, Melissa Sweet, Dan Yaccarino, Lucy Cousins, Meghan McCarthy, Yumi Heo and many many more. If you know any of those artists, you can see my taste varies quite a bit!

My visual style began as a heavily influenced mix of Chinese folk art and Matisse and the rest of my favorite artists and has slowly evolved from there. However, the longer I have worked in my style, the less influence the art of my admired artists are seen--nowadays, as I mentioned before, it is more the story and content that affect the art. However, my favorite artists are still a source of inspiration--whenever I struggle with an image seeing their art makes me keep working!



What are your favorite Asian children's books? Why are they your favorites?

For MG novels, I loved In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson and the Alvin Ho books. Unfortunately, I never read these as a child (well, Alvin Ho is recently published but I still wish I had read it as a child!). I love these because they are just great books that are fun and warm and full of heart that I know I would've loved if I had read them if I was younger (remember, wasn't a fan of sad books so Kira-Kira, as beautiful as it is, would've been ignored-sorry!).

You might have noticed that none of my favorite authors listed above are Asian. This is because when I was a child, there were so few Asian books available. This has changed quite a bit in the more recent years, but it is one of the reasons why most of the books I write and illustrate now are Asian-oriented. They are the books I missed when I was younger. I think the only Asian books that I enjoyed in my youth that I remember were the Little Pear books by Eleanor Lattimore. I've had a chance to reread one of them recently and I think it still holds up well. A sweet little classic, I think.

For PBs, I think almost everything Ed Young does is beautiful. I don't know how I would've felt about it as a child, but as an adult I feel his art is gorgeous, especially Wabi Sabi. Something I love now and know that I would've loved as a child is Yoko by Rosemary Wells. Not only is the art lovely, it captures a very relate-able Asian child experience!

What is your strongest or favorite memory from your travels in Asia? What other Asian countries would you like to visit?

Gosh, there were so many amazing memories! The food! The markets! Everything!

In Hong Kong, the highlights were seeing the big Buddha and sailing in a junk. Hong Kong was truly a magical trip as I basically had Amy, the librarian at the Hong Kong International School as my personal tour guide.


In China, the highlight was when we went to the Great Wall and it was almost empty and dusted with snow. I'll never forget how lovely it was.


And in Taiwan, because I went with my parents and it is where most of my extended family is, the best memories are just being with them...and eating (soup dumplings!).

I'd love to go back to all three places, as even with the longest visit there are things you don't get to see. I've been yearning to see the Yellow Mountains of China and I've heard that Thailand is also beautiful. And the Philippines, of course!

Grace, thank you so much for visiting Asia in the Heart, World on the Mind and chatting with me. :o)


[All photos courtesy of Grace Lin. Grace's official author photo (at the beginning of this post) was taken by Alexandre Ferron.]