Asian Reporter Info
Grace Lin is the Taiwanese-American author and illustrator of more than 30 children’s books. (Photo courtesy of the author)
From The Asian Reporter, V33, #8 (August 7, 2023), page 6.
The inspiration of Grace Lin
By Dmae Lo Roberts
Earlier this year, I had an opportunity to meet Grace Lin, the Taiwanese-American author and illustrator of more than 30 children’s books. I recently directed the musical theater adaptation of her beloved novel Where the Mountain Meets the Moon — the recipient of a Newbery Honor — for the Oregon Children’s Theatre. At the play, she visited with the cast backstage and signed books in the lobby.
Besides the Newbery, Lin has received literary honors from Geisel as well as Caldecott. She currently lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, after growing up in upstate New York, where she and her sisters were the only Asian girls attending their elementary school. Throughout her childhood and into her teen years, she didn’t see herself reflected in the books she read or the television shows she watched. This experience led her to create her own books when she was a child. She explained in our interview that the "kind of strange sense of alienation" she felt made her think of books as her friends. Whenever there was a school project, she always made a book. Her first one was a picture book about Vikings because that was what her class was studying at the time.
Though her first-generation Taiwanese immigrant parents were a doctor and a botanist, they did not dissuade their daughter when she wanted to pursue a career in art. Lin created a successful career for herself by including Asian lead characters and Asian themes in her books so other kids wouldn’t feel like they were the only Asian student in class. This also helped her own sense of identity.
"It was only through the making of these books for all these years, book after book after book," Lin said, "that I really feel like I can claim the Asian part of my Asian American-ness. And that is the gift that my books give me."
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, her most well-known book, was released in 2009. It features a young Chinese female heroine on an epic quest to find good fortune for her family. A previous visit by Lin to Portland’s Lan Su Garden led her to travel to China and Taiwan, which inspired her to research Mountain. When it became a bestseller, she had a brief encounter with a Hollywood agent who wanted to shop the book around to make a film adaptation. She hit a stone wall, however, when he asked what her "deal-breaker" would be for a film producer to option the book.
Lin told the agent there could be no film agreement if any of the characters were changed from Asian to Caucasian. "There was this silence," Lin said. "And he said, well, I guess it will have to be animated then." After that conversation, she recounted that interest in a movie adaptation seemed to die away.
Yet that didn’t dissuade Lin from agreeing to theater adaptations — which, she admits she actually prefers — of the novel and many other books, including two follow-up books in the same series as Mountain.
Her latest book, Chinese Menu: The History, Myths, and Legends Behind Your Favorite Foods, which is scheduled for release on September 12, includes legends and tales behind the creation of American Chinese food.
Chinese Menu tells 40 historical and legendary stories (it also has some recipes!), including how chopsticks were invented and the creation of fortune cookies. My personal favorite is about Chinese dumplings. She said that in ancient times, a Chinese doctor invented dumplings as a medicine to cure frostbitten ears. According to Lin, he filled thin pieces of dough "with peppers and warm spices" and thought, "if people ate these dumplings, it would warm them from the inside and cure their frostbitten ears." Lin doesn’t think it actually cured the frostbite, but thinks people enjoyed the dumplings so much that they kept eating them.
As an author, Lin loves interacting with her readers both in-person and virtually. She believes that being a writer and illustrator is a wonderful job, but admits it involves a lot of time alone in the studio. Sometimes she doesn’t know the impact her books have on readers, but through contact with book clubs and school classrooms, and especially conversations with kids who have read her books, she receives feedback. These exchanges reinforce why she continues her craft.
To learn more about Chinese Menu: The History, Myths, and Legends Behind Your Favorite Foods, or to pre-order a copy, visit <www.gracelin.com/chinese-menu>.
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