I really should have taken a picture: my too-fast growing tween son, cuddled in bed reading to his little cousin (my not-quite-5-year-old nephew with the most amazing eyes you’ll ever gaze into), hearing the very familiar words of Grace Lin’s delicious Dim Sum for Everyone.
“Do you want to hear it again,” my son asks. “SURE!” comes the resounding reply.
Although Grace Lin has never met my kids (or nephews, although they’re practically neighbors), she’s long been a part of their lives – on their shelves, lying across the couch, now cuddling with younger cousins. As our kids have aged, so have Lin’s books, as she’s moved from the fantastic picture book fun of The Ugly Vegetables, Fortune Cookie Fortunes, Bringing in the New Year, to middle-grade reads that began with The Year of the Dog, continued with The Year of the Rat, and most recently with the just-awarded Newbery Honor title Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.
Having grown up with the rare but cringe-inducing, exoticized titles like The Five Chinese Brothers (Lin actually illustrated the much-needed girl-power antidote, The Seven Chinese Sisters, by Kathy Tucker), my kids have little idea how lucky they are to be surrounded with so many great books in which their Asian Pacific American, multicultural faces and experiences are thoughtfully, accurately reflected. Ironically, while Lin’s literary stardom is firmly grounded in her Chinese American heritage, she spent her childhood in upstate New York as part of the only minority family in town, mired in cultural denial. Today, she refers to her then-self as “a perfect poster image of the ‘Twinkie’ stereotype” – that is, yellow on the outside, white on the inside.
The one thing Lin did know early on is that she wanted to “make books.” Sparked by the thrill of a fourth-place win in a 6th grade book contest (that thrill of victory keenly captured in Lin’s autobiographical The Year of the Dog), Lin’s future was sealed. Not until art school in Italy, however, did Lin find her true calling. Maybe it was eating all that pasta (which is originally Chinese, after all), but Lin realized that she knew more about Italian art and history than she did her own family culture and traditions: “I knew more about the Renaissance than why my parents immigrated from Taiwan!”
At art school, she found inspiration in Chinese folk art with all its magnificent colors and patterns; at home, she found comfort in her mother’s recipes. Lin took her first literary bow with The Ugly Vegetables, published in 1999, which remains one of her most popular books. Fast forward to 2010, and Lin has more than a dozen titles she’s written or illustrated, and more often than not, written and illustrated. Her penultimate, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, was chosen for Al Roker’s Today Show Kid’s Book Club, then got the very-much-coveted 2010 Newbery Honor, placing it high on the New York Times bestseller list (every author’s dream come true!).
Mountain’s spunky and independent heroine, Minli, can’t bear to see her parents leading such harsh lives, especially her mother who is so discontented with the family’s poverty that she can’t even enjoy the glorious stories Minli’s father regularly tells her. Minli is determined to change her family’s fortune, and with the help of a talking goldfish, she sets out in search of the Old Man of the Moon high atop Never-Ending Mountain. Along the way, she meets a dragon who can’t fly but knows how to be a true friend. Back at home, her parents wait for her return with ever-growing worry … but only with Minli’s disappearance does her mother finally recognize that the vastness of their true wealth has nothing to with gold. In the end, true fortune has to do with true thankfulness … a perfect reminder lesson for us all.
That Mountain’s message celebrates gratitude came at one of the most difficult periods in Lin’s life. In the advance galley of the book, Alvina Ling – Lin’s childhood best friend who also happens to be her editor, whose early years are already immortalized as the best friend of Lin’s stand-in Pacy in The Year of the Dog and The Year of the Rat – offers an incredibly touching note about how Mountain came to be: “This book was born from the tragedy of [Grace's] husband Robert‘s illness, and after his untimely death, it has become Grace’s testament to his life. It is absolutely Grace’s best work to date …”
At just 35, Lin’s husband, Robert Mercer, lovingly remembered in the mouse story that is Robert’s Snow, passed away in 2007 from a rare bone cancer. When she could cry no more, Lin traveled to China, to both calm and feed her depleted soul. There she overcame her own mountains of grief, filled with stories of wonder and strength that would become that “best work to date.”
During the special luncheon Lin’s publisher, Little, Brown, threw for her the day before the July 1, 2010 Newbery banquet, Lin gave a tearful thank-you, which she later posted on her website blog:
As many of you already know, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is my personal tribute to my late husband Robert. While the fantasy genre interested me, I only began to write it in earnest when he asked me to, so, while he was going through chemotherapy, I could read it to him and he could imagine himself elsewhere.
At the beginning of Robert’s illness, there were many times I thought we were cursed with ill-fortune and I would wonder why our fate was so poor. But as he began to lose his fight for life, I realized how lucky and how truly fortunate I really was. And when Robert’s battle ended, his final gift to me was the soul of the book.
No dry eyes in sight!
With such gratitude, the saddest endings sometimes can beget happy beginnings. Lin has recently remarried, to Alex – they’re practically newlyweds! – whom she refers to as Squatchie (yes, as in Sasquatch!) with giddy humor. The best of new beginnings are indeed possible.
Ever prolific, Lin’s latest, Ling & Ting: Not Exactly the Same! hit bookstores last month. This literary Ling, by the way, is not Lin’s Alvina Ling, Lin insists [HA! Say that 10 time fast!]. By the way, any maverick PBS or television producers listening out there? Here’s a perfect programming tip coming your way … Ling & Ting could have an amazing future as a children’s TV show. Move over Arthur! Mice are so 20th century … it’s high time for Chinese American twin adventures already!
Since the big Newbery announcement, I’ve so been enjoying seeing your name regularly pop up (complete with polka-dotted dress pictures) in my various listservs, literary announcements, etc. in the last few months. So are you having the time of your life?
Yes, when I think about it! But I am knee-deep in a rough draft for the new novel so I shut off the Internet and hole up a lot of the time these days. But it’s fun when I get to come out and do things, like book parties.
Could you share some of the highlights of your “Cinderella night”?
It was rather a blur, but it was also great fun. Anytime I have a legitimate excuse to get dressed up in a fancy outfit is always fun. I know I should say the best part was listening to the inspirational speeches or meeting so many nice people and being with friends, but really the best part for me was receiving the award! It only felt real once I had it in my hot hands, I guess there was a small part of me before that which thought maybe it was a mistake and they could take it back. Hmm, I guess they could still do that, but now they’d have to pry my fingers off it. [... click here for more]
Author interview: Feature: “An Interview with Grace Lin,” Bookslut.com, August 2010