New York Times best-selling author-illustrator Grace Lin won the Newbery Honor for her middle-grade novel Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, the Theodor Geisel Honor for her early reader Ling and Ting, and a Caldecott Honor for picture book A Big Mooncake for Little Star. Her new middle-grade novel, Mulan: Before the Sword, is an original prequel to Disney’s live-action Mulan story.
CHRISTINE VAN ZANDT: Welcome to Kite Tales! On the West Coast, changes to our lives and livelihoods have been happening at an ever-increasing speed. What’s life like on the East Coast?
GRACE LIN: Right now [March 19th], it’s kind of crazy. The COVID-19 virus has shut down the schools and we’re social distancing. It’s been inconvenient, but bearable. The one thing that has been extremely hard for me has been seeing the anti-Asian rhetoric grow.
CVZ: That disgraceful remarks are coming from our so-called leaders makes it even worse. We need to pull together to get through this.
Your book, Mulan: Before the Sword, (Disney, Feb. 2020) is one of the best middle-grade novels I’ve read in years. How has the book’s release been impacted?
GL: Thanks so much for your nice words about the book. Mulan: Before the Sword is an original prequel to Disney’s live action movie Mulan. We had been hoping that the book and the movie would have symbiotic success—people who saw the movie and wanted to know more about the characters’ back stories could read the novel and vice versa. Unfortunately, the advent of COVID-19 derailed the movie and I’m not sure when it’s coming out. Also, as I mentioned earlier, the anti-Asian rhetoric has been hard. Mulan posters are being defaced in ways that make me quite sad.
Since my entire body of work has been Asian inspired (and because I am Asian-American), I personally have shifted from trying to promote Mulan as a single title. Instead, I’ve been trying to get my voice, face, and books out on the internet as much as possible to hopefully show kids that Asians are not the enemy.
CVZ: The defacing of Mulan posters is upsetting. Mulan’s powerful story shows girls can do anything—I want girls everywhere to read your book. Like me, you also have a young daughter. How is being together 24/7 working out?
GL: Well, it’s only been a week, ask me that when we hit the halfway point! Honestly, we’re all kind of homebodies at heart, my husband is a stay-at-home dad and I’ve always worked at home so the transition wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been. That said, the first day was kind of hard—I tried to follow this homeschool schedule that people have been passing around the internet and it was just too structured for us. Trying to get work done, making sure my daughter’s brain is properly stimulated, and having my husband sane is the challenge—we seem to be able to do two out of three well regularly, but all three … well, we’re a work-in-progress!
GL: Well, I’ve temporarily abandoned the novel I have been thinking of and instead have taken up writing silly duck stories with my daughter. Not only have they been a source of comfort and bonding for the two of us, I kind of think they are good! I’m crossing my fingers my editor and agent think so, too.
CVZ: How do you switch gears from writing to writing-illustrating?
GL: Well, it’s much more difficult now! But, usually deadlines force me to switch. For me, everything begins with writing. The story kind of dictates if it wants to be a picture book, an early reader, or a novel. From there, I send it to my agent and editor and, if I’m lucky, all goes well and I get a contract for it. And then the publisher says they need illustrations by a certain time and then I just have to force the wheel there. It is hard to switch but usually, once I’m started, I’m able to find my groove.
GL: Right now, I’m supposed to be working on a picture book! I’m waiting for comments on my sketches, hence the writing of silly duck stories that I mentioned above. But I am super excited about the new picture book. It is co-written by Kate Messner and it is inspired by the Children’s Book Week poster I did—I loved the image I created for the CBC so much, I asked all my writer friends if they could come up with a story for it (I was too deep into Mulan to come up with one myself at the time). Kate did and it’s going to be a book! Right now it is called Once Upon a Story.
In the meantime, please cross your fingers for me about the silly duck stories.
GL: Hang in there! And go easy on yourself. I’ve seen people posting quotes saying “Remember, Shakespeare wrote King Lear while he was quarantined during the plague!” If that inspires you, great! But if that makes you feel like you are not measuring up as an author, that somehow you should be writing great masterworks during this time of turmoil—I say, hogwash. Write if you want to, write if you need to, write if you can. But if you don’t actually type any words, that’s okay. Part of writing is experiencing, living and surviving. So, remember, if you’re doing those, you’re still writing.
WANT MORE INFO? See Christine’s book review of Mulan: Before the Sword.
Grace Lin, a New York Times best-selling author-illustrator, won the Newbery Honor for Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and the Theodor Geisel Honor for Ling and Ting. Her novel When the Sea Turned to Silver was a National Book Award Finalist and her picture book, A Big Mooncake for Little Star was awarded the Caldecott Honor. Grace is also an occasional commentator for New England Public Radio, a reviewer for the New York Times, a video essayist for PBS NewsHour, and the speaker of the popular TEDx talk, “The Windows and Mirrors of Your Child’s Bookshelf,” as well as hosting the two podcasts: kidlitwomen and Kids Ask Authors. In 2016, Grace’s art was displayed at the White House where Grace, herself, was recognized by President Obama’s office as a Champion of Change for Asian-American and Pacific Islander Art and Storytelling.
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Author image courtesy of Danielle Tait.