For best-selling children’s book author and illustrator Grace Lin, 2020 was the first in many years she didn’t spend touring libraries and schools across the country.
“Career-wise, it’s been really interesting because I usually travel quite a bit. And now I’m not traveling at all,” she said in a recent Zoom interview from her home in Northampton.
But life continues in motion. “The trick of this year has been to reframe,” she said. “We’ve been really lucky, everybody in my family is safe and healthy. … We have to be thankful for what we have.”
Lin still hosts virtual talks and school readings via her website, gracelin.com. She sells artwork on an Etsy shop. She also has been working on her new “Kids Ask Authors” podcast, where Lin and a guest author answer one question submitted by a young reader every week. Her husband, Alex Ferron, produces and edits the podcasts. Her daughter, Hazel, 8, poses as the model for many of Lin’s books.
“In some ways it’s been really lovely, because I can be home with my family and I can really focus on my work,” Lin said of the past 10 months. For the first time, she’s been able to work simultaneously on two projects: both a picture book and a new young adult novel.
Even before the pandemic, Lin would be considered a prolific and highly accomplished cultural figure by any measure. Today, her work has captured nearly every major award in the field of children’s literature including the Caldecott Honor, Massachusetts Book Award, and the Newbery Honor medal. She was also a finalist for the National Book Award in 2016. Her dozens of titles, which range from early reader board books to middle-grade novels, have received starred reviews in many outlets from Kirkus to the American Library Association.
Lin’s books often feature Asian children and their families experiencing daily life, eating meals together, and preparing foods from Chinese culture such as dumplings and moon cakes. Many are fantastical, weaving in elements from traditional Chinese and Taiwanese folktales. They have touched scores of readers who don’t identify as Asian, but love the stories and illustrations with their universal themes of belonging, peace, identity, friendship, and family. Some of her best-known titles are “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon” (2009) and “The Year of the Dog” (2006).
Lin has also been heralded as a longtime advocate for greater diversity and inclusion in children’s literature, a cause that surged to greater public attention in 2020 with the mainstream rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.
It wasn’t always this easy, though. Lin, 46, has come a long way since her career as an author began in the late 1990s. “I mean I was really struggling, I was eating ramen noodles,” she said. “I was doing all the things that starving artists do.” The turning point came with her critically acclaimed second book, “Dim Sum for Everyone” (2001). Incidentally, 2021 marks the 20th anniversary of its initial publication.
Back then, she was at a crossroads. Lin had graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design a few years earlier and published her first title, “The Ugly Vegetables” (1999), a picture book about a Chinese-American family bringing joy to their community through an Asian vegetable garden. Her editor at the time warned her against becoming pegged as an unorthodox “multicultural” author, one who wrote only about Asian children. He advised Lin to use a white boy rather than an Asian girl in her next book. Apparently, boys couldn’t be expected to read books with girl characters but girls were counted on to read about boys. And “the Asian character won’t have that broad general appeal,” Lin recalled the editor saying.
“Now we call it ‘diverse,’ but back then we called it ‘multicultural,’” Lin said. The label carried a stigma. It virtually guaranteed that she wouldn’t be taken seriously as a mainstream author. “That was really hard, to hear all that. And I wasn’t really sure what to do.”
But then another publisher quickly offered to buy “Dim Sum for Everyone” as it was. Lin took the plunge.
At first, it seemed her former editor had been right. The book was a success, but the “multicultural” label stuck. “I felt like it was boxing me in,” she said. “I felt like that’s all people saw.” Lin recalled other illustrators and children’s book authors expressing jealousy for her newfound success. Some accused her of “using your culture” to get attention.
She began writing books with non-human characters, like chickens and monkeys, attempting to circumvent the problem. “They’re all out of print now, which is so funny,” she said.
But at her signings for the animal books, Lin noticed a pattern. People, often Asian parents, would come up to her carrying the earlier books — the ones with Asian characters. “I’ve been looking so long for a book like this,” they would say, with tears in their eyes. Or it would be a child, ecstatic with appreciation. “The way they felt about those Asian books, like, so seen, and so dear to them, that happened over and over and over again.”
That’s when she realized: “You know what, it doesn’t matter if I’m Grace Lin, multicultural author-illustrator. I want to create books that people care about. You know, that really matter to people.”
Growing up in upstate New York, where her family was the only Asian one in town, she longed to find authors and illustrators of color she could emulate. “I found parts of them, but I never found one person,” she said. Lin had to patch them together for herself. There was “The Snowy Day” by Ezra Jack Keats and “Grandfather’s Journey” by Allen Say, but no female Asian role model. “I remember thinking, Oh, my dream is to be the Amy Tan of children’s books.”
She still has yet to see anyone who looks like herself reaching the levels of fame of J.K. Rowling or her idol Eric Carle, the celebrated illustrator of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.” This is why she keeps pushing for more diversity in children’s literature: “Because it’s hard to be what you can’t see.”
Lin recalled an emotional moment in 2016, when she took her daughter to the Eric Carle Museum in nearby Amherst. They were visiting an exhibit on Robert McCloskey, the well-known author of “Make Way for Ducklings.” “It was a really wonderful exhibit,” she said. But as they were leaving, she saw the title: “Americana on Parade.”
Lin immediately felt “really sad,” she recalled. “Because I realized I had taken my daughter to this whole gallery. And then there was not one person that looked like us on the walls. Yet this was Americana,” supposedly what American families looked like.
“It’s always hard, to feel so American on the inside. And yet realize that so few see you that way, because of how you look.”
The experience drove her to write one of her most celebrated picture books, “A Big Mooncake for Little Star” (2018). “Mooncake” won over a dozen accolades, including the prestigious Caldecott Honor. It tells the modern fable of Little Star, who disobeys her mother’s warning not to eat a giant mooncake in the sky. The girl nibbles away at it, creating the lunar phases.
The main character is modeled on Lin’s daughter. Now, Lin is proud to say, “My own daughter is kind of a new all-American Girl.”
Lin’s year at home meant Hazel got to learn about her mother’s career. “It’s gotten me even more interested in her job,” Hazel said over Zoom recently. When asked about her own career aspirations, Hazel appeared to have no hesitation seeing herself as a professional artist someday. “I know I would want to make art,” she said; she just hadn’t figured out what kind. “Maybe I could learn how to sew. And maybe I could sew things for Mamma’s books.”
Ferron, who identifies as a white man, is also proud to be part of the home team. “What she does is very important. Who she is, is very important,” he said. “I’d rather want to support what she represents to people than what I could represent to people. Because there’s a lot of me in the outside world. And there’s not as many people that look like her out there.”
Beyond getting her voice out there, Lin believes her work accomplishes an important mission in our polarized time: helping children appreciate from a young age that cultural differences are beautiful, to be cherished and respected, not fought over. “It’s easy to consider people who [we] aren’t used to seeing as an ‘other’ because they’re not familiar,” she said. Down the road, that could mean “seeing people who don’t look like us as ... potentially not even human.”
Lin recommends encouraging children of all races to embrace authors of different backgrounds. “I completely believe that a diverse book is of extreme interest, that kids will love them,” she said. “Once they get into it, it becomes their favorite book.”
In the spirit of embracing others, this winter season Lin recommends Aaron Becker’s “You Are Light” as a board book for younger children; “Prairie Lotus” by Linda Sue Park, based on the fascinating untold history of early Chinese settlers in the plains; “Flamer” by Mike Curato, a graphic novel about a teen boy learning to come out as gay; “Ways to Make Sunshine” by Renee Watson, a YA novel about a kind and resourceful Black girl; and “Dreamers,” a picture book about immigration by Yuyi Morales.
“We always need diverse books but this time we need them even more,” Lin said. “If only just to remind kids that there are other people out there.” During the pandemic, children have become accustomed to seeing only those in their family bubble. “I think that this is the time where we all need to make even more effort to show kids outside of their own world.”
Victoria Zhuang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.