Grace Lin on the 'Windows and Mirrors' of children’s books
Growing up in New Hartford, New York, Grace Lin and her two sisters were the only Chinese-American girls in her elementary school. Lin’s parents immigrated from Taiwan and still spoke Mandarin and Taiwanese at home, but Grace did not want to learn about her heritage. “When my mother tried to interest me in traditional Chinese culture it would just make me angry. It reminded me how different I was from my classmates.”
All that changed when Lin attended the Rhode Island School of Design to study illustration and spent a semester abroad. She was sitting at a cafe in Rome when an Italian friend asked her, “How do you say ‘coffee’ in Chinese?” Lin had an epiphany: She could carry on a conversation in Italian, she knew obscure facts about Roman art and history, but she couldn’t speak one word of her parents’ mother tongue.
“After a lifetime of denying my heritage I was suddenly starved for it,” says Lin. She started studying Asian art on her own and adapted the bright color palette and intricate patterns of Chinese peasant art to her own illustrations, many of which were inspired by both European fairytales and Chinese folktales.
Since then, Lin graduated with a B.F.A. from RISD and has gone on to become an advocate for diversity in children’s books. In her 2016 TED Talk entitled “The Windows and Mirrors of Your Child’s Book Shelf,” Lin explains how books can act like mirrors “showing you a reflection of yourself,” and as a “magical window to another culture.” Lin emphasizes the importance of both formats to create a kind and empathetic child: “How can we expect kids to get along with others in this world — to empathize and to share — if they never see outside of themselves?”
Recently, the cover illustration for her latest children’s novel, "When The Sea Turned to Silver", was displayed at the White House, where Lin was recognized as a Champion for Change for Asian American and Pacific Islanders. The book is a stand-alone novel, but readers of Lin’s 2010 Newbery Honor book "Where the Mountain Meets the Moon" may recognize some repeat characters and themes.
In "When the Sea Turned to Silver", Pinmei — described as a “shy little mouse” — is forced to embark on an adventure to rescue her Amah (grandmother) from the Tiger Emperor. Filled with Lin’s full-color, intricately patterned illustrations, "When the Sea turned to Silver" nestles traditional Chinese folktales within the narrative of Pinmei’s own story, using them as fuel for the adventure. “My characters are empowered by stories” says Lin. Why stories? “Because,” as Lin explains in the afterward to her novel, “Stories are what connect us to the past and carry us to the future.”
On Sunday, October 16, Grace Lin will be speaking and signing books at Books On the Square, 471 Angell Street, Providence, at 2 p.m. To learn more about Grace Lin and her books, visit gracelin.com.
Laura LaTour is an avid reader and former bookseller. She is currently working as a freelance writer and publicist. Tell her your stories at: Laura@LaTourCreations.com.