She is the author and illustrator of picture books, early readers and middle grade novels. Grace's 2010 Newbery Honor book WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON was chosen for Al Roker's Today Show Kid's Book Club and was a NY Times Bestseller. LING & TING, Grace's first early reader, was honored with the Theodor Geisel Honor in 2011. An Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award nominee for the US, most of Grace's books are about the Asian-American experience because she believes, "Books erase bias, they make the uncommon everyday, and the mundane exotic. A book makes all cultures universal."
We are really glad to have her answer our questions.
ST- How did you begin writing and illustrating? What inspired you? Were you really afraid of the ‘cold door’ at any point?
GL- Writing and illustrating is something I've always wanted to do. The stories in “The Year of the Dog” and “The Year of the Rat” are true. Just like the main character of those books, I won 4th place in a book contest as a student and was so excited that I decided that making books was what I wanted to do my whole life. Of course, as I grew older, I learned that making books might not be the most lucrative career choice—very much a possible “cold door!” However, while it was worrisome, my passion to make books was stronger.
Did you go to a specific art school / writing school to hone your skills? How did it feel getting published the first time?
I have a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in illustration and after art school I took numerous writing classes. I also worked for a time at a children’s bookstore. All the things I learned from each of those experiences were vital for my career; it’s doubtful I would have any accomplishments without them.
Being published the first time was both euphoric and anticlimactic. It took 3 years for me to publish my first book, “The Ugly Vegetables,” and by the time it came out (even though I was incredibly proud) I had also learned enough by then to realize that it was only the first step to a career. Originally, I naively thought that once I had that first book published everything would be easy. Unfortunately, it never gets easy. But it’s always worth it!
You have your old friend as your editor. Does it help that she is of Asian descent as well?
I definitely have an extremely unique relationship with my editor. The character of Melody is based on my good friend Alvina Ling—we were childhood friends, just like in the “Year of the Dog” and she moved away, just like in the “Year of the Rat.” But just like in “Dumpling Days” we kept in touch and we have for all these years, becoming roommates at the start of our careers in children’s books at the same time (I published my first book just as she got an internship at a publishing company all the way back in 1999). And now, she’s the editor of my books!
It probably does help that she is of Asian descent, but it’s more helpful that we are such good friends. Because of our friendship, there’s an element of trust that is really wonderful—we didn’t have to build up to it, the trust was there right from the start. When she tells me something isn’t working, I really believe her—it’s like the friend that tells you about the spinach in your teeth.
We do remember the events I write about differently. In fact, many times I forget what actually happened and think the way I wrote it is completely 100% true, when it is more like 80% true and she has to correct me. And because we’ve experienced so many similar things, she’ll point out things that I’ll overlook. For example, in “Dumpling Days,” when I described the night market, I wrote it mainly as the things I saw. She would remind me, “Don’t forget how loud those markets are! And how strong the smells!” Another editor, not having experienced the night market, may not have pointed that out.
And, of course, my point of view was different from hers. For example, her parents have always been Taiwanese nationalists (believing Taiwan should be it’s own country, not a part of China) whereas in my youth my parents were rather hazy about their ideals and often labeled themselves and us as Chinese. This is always something we go back and forth about when I write the books. But it’s good!
Where the Mountain meets the moon seamlessly weaves folk tales to the main story. How did this evolve? You wrote a story linking the myths? Had you heard all these myths growing up?
Many of the myths I had read or had heard of when I was a child. When I had the opportunity to visit Hong Kong and China as an adult, those myths I had learned came back to me. However, since it had been a while, I didn’t remember them exactly and began to make up my own details and plotlines. Those imaginings became the foundation for “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon;” and when I began to write it, I researched and read more myths and folktales to help fill in the gaps.
One can compare Minli's journey to Dorothy's in Wizard of Oz. Was this intentional, as a result of growing up in New York?
I know there are quite a few similarities to the “Wizard of Oz,” but, honestly, it was not intentional. I was actually using an old Chinese folktale called “Olive Lake” as the foundation for “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.” It’s curious that I only realized the similarities to the “Wizard of Oz” after the book was finished—I adored that book when I was younger and I had a bit of a Dorothy fixation as well. It must have been subconscious. And perhaps, Frank Baum knew the “Olive Lake” story and used that for his inspiration as well!
In the same book, you have used colour for the illustrations- that is rare for a novel, is it not? How and why did you decide to do that?
Yes, it’s very rare for a novel to be printed in color. It was very special that my publisher was willing to do that for me—my editor and I begged & pleaded! I really wanted color illustrations because when I was a child I adored the full color illustrations in my European fairytale books—illustrations done by artists like Arthur Rackham, Trina Schart Hyman, and Tasha Tudor. My childhood Chinese Fairy tale books only had cartoonish black and white illustrations. This led me to believe, at the time, that those stories, the Asian stories, were not as valuable. Which, of course, was not true. I wanted my book to have elaborate, full-color illustrations in it so today’s young readers would not make the same mistake I did.
Did you anticipate this kind of fan following for the Pacy series? How did the concept evolve? First it was Year of the Dog, Year of the Rat and now Dumpling Days. One can almost visualize this as a movie series- any plans on that?
The first book, “Year of the Dog” was my first effort at a middle grade novel—my homage to the Carolyn Haywood & Betsy-Tacy books that I loved as a child. As I wrote in my author’s note in “The Year of the Dog,” I wanted to write the book I had longed for as a child. Those books I adored had so much I loved in them—school, friends, family. The only thing they didn’t have was someone like me, someone Asian-American. So, “The Year of the Dog” was a kind of wish fulfillment on my part.
The second book “Year of the Rat” came directly because I felt like there were some loose threads in “Year of the Dog” (for example, the friendship with Charlotte and Becky). These books are heavily based on my life, a lot of what I wrote really did happen and I wanted let the readers know how those loose threads came together.
After that, readers often asked me to continue, wanting me to write “Year of the Tiger” or “Year of the Horse.” I was thrilled that they wanted more but I wasn’t sure if I had anything else to write that was not repetitive. For me to write another “Year of…” book I would probably have to start completely making up entire events and anecdotes, instead of basing them on what had really happened. In general I have no problem with that, but I felt the heart of these books was how very real they were. I felt that the reason the books had struck a chord with readers was because they could sense the truth in them. So, I searched in my memories for something that I felt could be of real interest and the result was “Dumpling Days.”
I’d love to see Pacy or Minli on the big screen! Unfortunately, there isn’t too much interest from any movie studios so I don’t think that will happen anytime in the near future. But I’m happy they exist as books.
You are a champion for American kids of foreign descent. Does that affect the way you write? Do you plan to introduce other minorities in your series- an Indian child perhaps?
I’m proud that my books champion Asian-American kids, however when I began writing that was not exactly my purpose. I just try to write books that are important to me and because I am Asian-American and that is something important to me, my books reflect that. My Pacy books are very much autobiographical, so as much as I would like to introduce an Indian child, I’m not sure it would feel right to me in that series (there were no Indian children, or other minorities, in my elementary school). However, perhaps in a different book that would be something to explore!
Can you please tell us more about your upcoming projects? Any books you plan to write for adults soon?
I’ve been hard at work on the companion book to WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON. It’s called STARRY RIVER OF THE SKY and it comes out in October. For those readers that know WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON, this book is not a sequel—it doesn’t follow Minli’s story—but it takes place in the same world and there might be some other characters you recognize!
I don’t have any plans to write books for adults, I’ve always wanted to be a children’s author. I think it is because my favorite books are children’s books, they are the books that I most love and remember. They are the books that have most affected my life and brought me the most joy. I want to create books like that.
Thanks Grace! And that is precisely what you do- bring Joy to your readers of all ages.
See more about Grace and her work here.