Background, Experiences, and Cultural Perspective
Grace Lin is a Taiwanese-American author and illustrator who grew up in upstate New York. She wanted to be an illustrator from a very young age, going to far as to enter a publishing contest in elementary school (Reading Rockets 2014). While she did not win, she did place fourth and furthered her determination to become an author and illustrator. She attended the Rhode Island School of Design, where she studied children’s illustration.
Growing up, Lin was one of the only children from a minority family in a very white town. She claims that she grew up “as a Twinkie––yellow on the outside, white on the inside” going on to say, “Where I grew up in upstate New York there were no other minorities, so I kind of forgot that I was Asian” (Yates Walton 2010). Her parents were Taiwanese immigrants, and, as a child, Lin pushed away much of her cultural roots to feel more at home among her peers; in a 2014 interview with Reading Rockets, she states, “When I was growing up I spent a lot of time trying to pretend I wasn’t Asian. And I was really very uninterested in my culture.” In childhood, she was more fascinated by early readers featuring blue-eyed blonde triplets than she was the Chinese stories her mother tried to share with her (Yates Walton 2010). But, while she found these stories about children who lived so differently from her fascinating, she wished there was something that mirrored her own experience growing up, stating in a 2010 interview with Julie Yates Walton, “I loved those books, but the one thing that I always felt was missing was somebody who looked like me. In general, I wished that about all the books I read, like, gee, I wish Betsy had an Asian friend.” She goes on to say, “So when I started writing books, I thought about the books that I had loved and I thought it would be really fun to have an Asian Snipp, Snapp and Snurr.”
Since beginning her career as an author and illustrator, Lin has made a point of creating stories and images that reflect childhoods like hers. For example, regarding her first title “The Ugly Vegetables”, Lin has this to say: “My very first book… is a story about a girl and her mother. Her mother grows Chinese vegetables in her garden while everybody else in the neighborhood grows flowers. And the little girl is very embarrassed because they’re obviously Chinese-American or Asian-American in the story. This is very much based on my childhood” (Reading Rockets 2014). In the same interview, she goes on to discuss the importance of her books, and her distinctly Chinese illustration style, in the landscape of children’s literature. “I started getting letters, or parents who say ‘Oh I’ve been looking so hard for a book just like this. An Asian American character where there is somebody who looks just like my daughter. Or just like my son.’ Then I started thinking about myself, and I started thinking about how I grew up…And all the books that I read never had anybody that looked like me in them. And I realized that if that had been maybe I wouldn’t have felt so alone” (Reading Rockets 2014). Her experience growing up as one of few minorities strongly impacted both the content and style of her illustrations, and now, as a Newbery Honor winner, she hopes to reach both children who grew up like her and a wider audience. “Before winning, my books were kind of niche. A lot of the people who read them were Asian-American girls, which felt like a really small population. But since I won the Newbery Honor, I’ve felt like I’m able to reach many more readers” (Yates Walton 2010). She strongly believes in the “Windows and Mirrors” theory espoused by many children’s literature experts, stating: “My hope for my books is not only is it a mirror of my childhood so that kids who were like me could see themselves and not feel so alone. I also hope that it’s a window for those who are not Asian who are not of a minority race. And they can see other races and realize oh they are just like [me] even though they might look different” (Reading Rockets 2014).
Analysis of Technique
In response to the question, “What has shaped your illustration style?” in an interview with Julia Yates Walton in 2010, Lin responded, “While I was in school we studied the great European artists, but I started feeling really strange about the art that I was doing. I started to realize that I did not really know any Asian art at all. When I started looking at it on my own, what I really liked was Chinese folk art, which is very bright colors, a lot of pattern, very flat, not paying too much attention to perspective. At the same time, we were studying Matisse who was doing a similar thing, but in a different way. I tried to mix those two together to make my own style, kind of Asian-American. I wanted my style to reflect the mix that I felt that I was.”
Lin’s illustration style is widely acclaimed in reviews of her books.Regarding her title “Dim Sum For Everyone!” Booklist has this to say, “Lin’s paintings are graphically striking. They combine a simplicity of form and design with a delight of patterning that appears in clothing and in backgrounds that are reminiscent of Matisse. Arresting, yet pleasing, combinations of color underscore the dynamic sense of every action portrayed, making even the selection of dishes an important moment, as it can feel to small children.” This striking quality can be seen in all her works; she pairs simple designs of faces and objects,a flat perspective, and extensive patterning with bold colors throughout her body of work.
She is particularly known for her use of patterns to add visual interest to illustrations, which also add to the Asian flair of her style. School Library Journal says this of her title “Kite Flying”: “Patterns in the wallpaper and floor that form the background for the brilliantly colored, flat paintings of family members add visual interest. More patterns appear on Chinese-style jackets and slippers and on the bright-red dragon as well. Lin’s signature swirls in the sky along with diagonals of kite string, grassy hill, and kite ribbons; and blowing hair, clothing, and leaves combine to suggest the ideal blustery day for this activity.” These patterns are often simple repetitions, but layered atop one another they stand out particularly against the simplicity of the rest of her designs.
List of Works
- The Big Buck Adventure
- Bringing in the New Year!
- Dim Sum for Everyone!
- Fortune Cookie Fortunes
- The Jade Necklace
- Kite Flying
- Merry Christmas — Let’s All Sing!
- Okie Dokie, Artichokie
- Olvina Flies
- Olvina Swims
- One For Me, One For You
- One is a Drummer: A Book of Numbers
- One Year in Beijing
- Our Seasons
- The Red Thread
- Red is a Drgon: A Book of Colors
- Robert’s Snow
- Robert’s Snowflake
- Round is a Mooncake: A Book of Shapes
- The Seven Chinese Sisters
- Thanking the Moon
- Ugly Vegetables
- Where on Earth is My Bagel
- Ling and Ting: Not Exactly the Same
- Ling and Ting Share a Birthday
- Ling and Ting: Together in All Weather
- Ling and Ting: Twice as Silly
Illustrated Middle Grade Novels
- Dumpling Days
- Starry River of the Sky
- When the Sea Turned to Silver
- Where the Mountain Meets the Moon
- Year of the Dog
- Year of the Rat