BY RILEY GUERRERO ’20
Write what you know” is perhaps the most feared piece of advice given to young authors. However, it was exactly this that lead to the first book of what would eventually become Grace Lin’s impressive bibliography. Lin, who concluded the Childrens Literature Series presentations last week, graduated from art school with aspirations to be a children’s book illustrator, Lin submitted her portfolio to editors across the country for years, but received virtually no call-backs. This all changed with a fateful phone call from a small-time editor who enjoyed her work, but felt that the images already had their own stories. Perhaps these were stories that she should write herself, and if she ever did, he said he would be happy to take a look at them. Thus, “The Ugly Vegetables” was born, followed by picture books, early-reader novels, poetry collections, folktales and realistic fiction, all borne of two decades of work, research and drawings.
The daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, Lin draws on her cultural heritage and her relationships with her family to craft insightful and supportive narratives for all children, but providing much-needed representation of young people of color. When asked how she started crafting stories, Lin laughed, “I don’t really like writing that much, I like storytelling.” Though her writing was initially a means to create illustrations, Lin’s work has slowly become wordier, for instance with her recent long novel, “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and its two accompanying texts.
At her Q&A hosted by the Mount Holyoke English department, Lin discussed the aspects of writing that aren’t always reflected on the page. Although any aspiring author fears revision and potential rejection, Lin lightly quips that “writing is personal, publishing is not.” During her writing process she loves every word of her text, but finds it helpful to consider her finished but unedited pieces stones to be sculpted, something to be chiseled and polished into a final product.
On a more somber note, Lin also spoke of the challenges of being an author of color writing about the experiences of people of color in the cutthroat, “post-Harry Potter” world of childrens’ publishing. With only so many “slots” available for nonwhite authors, Lin mentioned that there is a feeling of guilt associated with every publication — “I began wondering if my story was taking the place of another author, maybe one who was waiting for their big break,” she admits. However, she also says that writing about so-called “niche” experiences takes a certain degree of hubris. “You have to believe your story is worth sharing with the world.” Outside circumstances have certainly affected Lin’s writing. She struggles to balance motherhood with her career, and is constantly working to better understand the wants and needs of her principal audience. The outcome of the 2016 election has for her, as for many, been another source of stress and a strain on her creativity. If nothing else, it has cast doubt on her previous conception that books and stories “would be others friends [that] would tie us all together.” Despite this recent blow to her creativity, she’s excited for the upcoming release of “A Big Mooncake for Little Star,” which will hopefully be hitting bookshelves in 2018.
Despite having won a Newbery Award for “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon” and experiencing the surge in sales and speaking engagements that such a prestigious award brings, Lin refers humbly to her past in relative obscurity as a true asset to her writing. “I want [my work] to be good, now I actually have readers!” She joked about the expectations that her readers have for her new books, but went on to add that, “I feel bad for debut authors and illustrators who get awards on their first novels – they never know what a gift it is.”
After “ten years of toil” getting published and building her base of readers, she reassures struggling young authors. “I know what it’s like to have nobody read your books,” she said, “That’s the heartbreak of being an artist.” However, the beautifully crafted stories and paintings that have colored her career, might prove the old adage that the most beautiful artwork is created through struggle. An inspiration to aspiring artists and young children of color and to the English students who study her work, Grace Lin’s career and creative process are brimming with the same uplifting messages as her stories and the vibrancy and compelling wonder of her art.