Part 2 of 2: Grace Lin on Diversity and Inclusion
Grace Lin, a NY Times bestselling author/ illustrator and winner of the Children’s Literature Legacy Award (2022), won the Newbery Honor for Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and the Caldecott Honor for her picture book, A Big Mooncake for Little Star. Grace is an occasional commentator for New England Public Radio, 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: Kids Ask Authors and Book Friends Forever. 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.
She kindly sat down to chat with me via Zoom about a range of topics. Here, she discusses diversity and inclusion in kidlit, including the importance of talking about race with children and the concept of books as windows and mirrors. This is Part 2 of the interview, so be sure to check out Part 1: Grace Lin on the Craft of Storytelling.
Amy Amberg: You’re such a great storyteller. Was it always your dream to be both an author and an illustrator?
Grace Lin: I was a kid when I decided to make books. In my book, The Year of the Dog, I talk about writing and illustrating my own book and entering it the writing contest and that’s why I wanted to become an author and illustrator. In high school, I decided that I had to just be an illustrator — maybe that was the thing that I instinctively knew that I needed more help with! In upstate New York where I went to school, we had writing classes and there was a writing club, but there was not really an illustration club. So that’s why I went to art school specifically for children’s book illustration.
I graduated from art school and did what all aspiring illustrators did then — now they have Instagram! — I sent out thousands and thousands of postcards for years to editors and publishers. Finally, about 2 years after I graduated from art school, I got a phone call from Harold Underdown, who was a senior editor at Charlesbridge publishing. He said, “I’ve been getting your samples for the past couple of years, but I don’t have a story to go with it. Maybe you have a story that goes with it?” and I said “Yes, I do!”, even though I didn’t! I thought that was my only opportunity, so I said yes. I looked at the sample that I had sent and wrote a story. Slowly, that became my very first published book [The Ugly Vegetables].
Now in hindsight, I realize one reason why I ended up being an author and illustrator. In college, I had a great identity awakening where I started to embrace my heritage. The art samples that I was sending out were all of me and my sisters as kids. They were basically all Asian characters. This was about 1996, 1997, which was way before We Need Diverse Books. Most publishers didn’t see much of a market for them. There weren’t many stories coming in featuring Asian characters. They didn’t see it as something very marketable, either. So, that is something that made me want to become an author. If I wanted to illustrate books with Asian characters, I would have to create my own content. I’d have to write my own stories because nobody else was going to do it.
AA: There was a need for years, and it just wasn’t being fulfilled by the publishing industry. I work as a Children’s Librarian, and I’ve found it very difficult to find books that represent the cultural and ethnic diversity of the kids who come into the library. In the past couple of years, I see it turning a corner. Do you notice a change in the publishing industry?
GL: Yeah, it’s definitely changing now, which is amazing. To see a book with characters who are Asian or who are Black on the best sellers list – that was something completely unheard of when I was starting out.
AA: Do you think you’ll write any more about your childhood?
GL: I’m not sure. I have The Year of the Dog, The Year of the Rat and Dumpling Days. Those were my very first novels. Everything that I write has some kind of personal connection, so I don’t think that’s going to go away.
AA: Speaking about novels — this brings me to a question about the Mulan book you wrote, Before the Sword. Did Disney approach you? How did that come about?
GL: Yes, Disney approached me and I’m really grateful for that. At the time, I was taking a little break from novels.
When Trump came into office, that felt very, very demoralizing to me. I felt very shaken by that. You can only control what you yourself do and I started taking inventory of everything that I do. I have these books, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, Starry River of the Sky and When the Sea Turned to Silver, and I’m very proud of them. I started thinking that these books are really popular and I’m really happy about that, but…there’s also the slight feeling that…are these books just reinforcing the idea of Asians as exotic? As not part of Americana, not as Asian Americans but these people from another era, another time? It was something that really paralyzed me for a bit. But, if you talk to any other fantasy writer, I’m sure….I’m sure they don’t think, “When I write this book, does it perpetuate the stereotype of witches?” No! Those are things that non-marginalized authors don’t have to think about. But it was something that was extremely heavy on my mind.
Before the Sword
After that, Disney approached me. They were going to do the Mulan movie and they asked me to do a completely original novel. They said, “We’d like you to write a prequel or something like that that’s inspired by the movie.” They sent me a script of the movie ahead of time and they said, “You can write whatever you want, as long as it doesn’t contradict the script.” It was really interesting! There was this whole new character, a witch. They suggested, “You can write the whole back story of the witch character.” It was so intriguing to me. I thought, “Well, if I don’t write it, they’re going to hire someone else to write it!” So, it broke me out of this novel writing paralysis. I did it and I’m really grateful for it!
Pandemic Book Release
GL: When I took on the Disney project, I thought, “This will be great – it will break me out to a whole new audience of people who have never read my books before!” But that didn’t happen. It didn’t do very well because it was a pandemic book. It came out about 3 weeks before the shutdowns, and they postponed the movie release. Of all the tragedies that happened because of the pandemic, that is a such a small drop in the bucket!
I want to say to authors — I completely empathize if you had a pandemic book release. I feel you! It’s so tough when you’re trying to build a career. I feel really bad for those who are in the early stages, when you’re like, “I’m going to have a launch party!” and…like, there are no books! “Okay, well…never mind!”
Windows and Mirrors: Discussing Race with Kids
AA: You have been an advocate for diversity and inclusion for years. Regarding the idea of books as windows (to see others’ lives) and mirrors (to see oneself) — what do you think that parents, teachers and librarians can do to support children’s self-acceptance and empathy for others through books? What kind of conversations can we engage in with kids about diversity and inclusion?
GL: I think it’s a three-fold answer.
#1 We need to flood our own media with diversity. Many adults say, “Yes, yes, we need diversity!” but then they go back and read the same genre that they always read every single day and they don’t bring it into their own lives. Kids will notice if you don’t read diverse materials! That is so much more powerful than anything you can say to a kid.
There was a library that I visited years ago and saw a display of a librarian’s favorite books. There were no people of color on the display — there were more cats than people of color!
As adults, we need to set an example and diversify our own reading so that we get to understand, “Oh! This a viewpoint that I had never thought of before”. We truly see what “window” and “mirror” means when we diversify our own reading.
#2 Flood your kids with diverse books. In the past, we’ve had a bad habit of bringing out the Asian books at Lunar New Year and the Black books at Black History Month…I’m not saying not to do that – definitely do that! But, I am Asian every day of my life, not during just that celebration once a year.
Flood them with diverse books so that they see what the global majority is. When I say flood, I mean every day, everything you can: media and books. We’re trying to figure out how to navigate this very complicated media landscape that is really skewed towards upholding social norms that we want to challenge — social norms that are unhealthy for our youth, and for us, too.
#3 We need to talk about these diverse books with our kids. “Windows” means planting the seed of empathy and “mirrors” means planting the seed of self-worth. You need both to be a functional, helpful, happy human being. We need to talk about these things with our kids so we make sure that it’s not just going over their heads.
I did a PBS NewsHour piece, In My Humble Opinion: What to Do When You Realize Classic Books From Your Childhood Are Racist, and it was the thing that I got the most hate mail for and the most trolling about. I feel that people never got to the end of my talk. They just heard me say that Little House on the Prairie has racist content in it, and then they got mad at me. What I was saying in that segment is what I say about all books, diverse or non-diverse, old and new. It’s okay to let your kids read anything they want, but you should definitely be aware of it and you need to talk about it with your kids. So, if they’re reading an old book, you should know what’s in that book. In those old books, there’s a lot of racist content. If they read Doctor Doolittle, you need to be able to talk to your kids and say, “In that book, there’s a part where he [an African prince] tries to turn White and I found that really disturbing – did you find that disturbing?” Hear what they say and ask, “How did that make you feel? It shows how different things were back then. Hopefully, we don’t do that today, right?”…and figure out how to make the readings that much more meaningful.
AA: Do you think that some adults are uncomfortable about having these discussions and they don’t know what to say, or they think that they might say the wrong thing, so they just shut it off completely? They would just rather say, “No more Little House on the Prairie!”
GL: That’s the problem that we are running into, on both sides. It’s hard.
It’s also knowing what is the right age to read something to your kid. Obviously, I’m not going to read something that’s super problematic to my kid when she’s 3 or 4 years old because we can’t have that deep, nuanced conversation.
The biggest thing about race, when I was a child, was that people just didn’t talk about it. One of my most vivid memories was when I was in 5th grade. After I had just answered a question correctly, a boy said, “Oh, she only knows that because she’s Chi –” but my teacher said, “Nope! No,” and she shook her head at him and continued on with the lesson. It was so obvious that he was going to say, “She only knows that because she’s Chinese.” The message was so clear to me: we were never supposed to talk about my race.
The adults were well-meaning. They meant to do it that way with the idea of creating color-blind kids. As the only Asian in a classroom of White faces, I didn’t feel colorless at all! In fact, it made me feel like, “Oh. I’m Asian and it is something to be so ashamed of, that we don’t talk about it. It’s like a secret – that everyone knows! – but it’s so bad, that we don’t even say it because it’s so bad”. That brought a big feeling of shame. I was very ashamed of being Asian. I had to pretend that I wasn’t [Asian] because it was such a bad thing. And that goes to that feeling of self-worth when we talk about mirrors. It’s so important that we acknowledge race, and why it’s important that we talk about it, because it exists. It’s not going to go away. If we don’t talk about race, the kids will just create opinions on their own that will probably not be correct.
AA: Thank you for sharing that, it’s very powerful. If people don’t know how to navigate the discussion of race or racism, like you said, they might just shut it down and that can create a whole new can of worms. It can affect people’s self-esteem as they get older. But if we can just talk about it…
GL: I was on my child’s preschool diversity committee, and everyone was so nervous to talk about race with their kids. I completely understand, but I think you have to remember that it’s not a one-and-done game. We make mistakes. It’s like all parenting – you make a mistake, and you’re like, “Oops! That’s not what I meant”. I had a big parenting fail about race while reading Tar Beach [by Faith Ringgold] with my daughter when she was about 4 years old.. She was really upset that the girl’s father was not allowed into the union because he was Black. I can’t remember what the conversation was, but I was somehow not able to communicate with her and she burst into tears.
It was a fail at that moment, but a few days later, we came back to it and it was a win. We said, “That was unfair! I’m glad that’s changed now”. It’s not a zero-sum game. It’s an ongoing conversation. As a parent, we want to have all the answers, but we’re all still learning. You can say something like, “This is something that everyone is struggling with, even adults…and we’re all going to try our best here”.
AA: This is really important. Thank you so much for sharing this with me today. I’m grateful to you for taking the time to do this interview!
If you enjoyed this interview, be sure to check out Pt. 1: Grace Lin on the Craft of Storytelling here on Writers’ Rumpus! You can learn more about her work at https://gracelin.com/ and sign up for her e-mail newsletter to keep up with all of the latest. Or, connect with Grace Lin online:
About Amy Amberg
Inspired by true stories, little known facts and fun language, Amy Amberg is a writer and children’s librarian who finds book ideas in the scraps of internet searches, random bylines and bibliographies. A member of SCBWI, she loves writing biographies, picture books and concept board books. When she’s not researching, writing or revising, Amy can be found exploring the New England woods, hiking and kayaking.