Monday, August 3, 2020

#SCBWISummerSpec: A Conversation with Grace Lin and Alvina Ling

Alvina Ling and Grace Lin smiling into the camera while seated on opposite sides of a table with a recording device between them and their names on placards on table's edge
There are quite a few pictures of Alvina Ling and Grace Lin together on the internet, but this is the one I chose
You're probably thinking "oh for crying out loud, guest blogger Mike Jung, how about not coughing up your personal anecdotes about the faculty for a change," to which my answer is BUT I WANNA. In fact, Alvina Ling and Grace Lin are both lovely, gracious, engaging people who were supremely kind and welcoming to me, as I know they'd be to you too, if we were actually gathering in person. And, AND, I met them both at SCBWI conferences, which is, of course, the type of cool thing that can happen when attending SCBWI conferences.

Photo of Alvina Ling.
Hey it's Alvina Ling!
They're also both dedicated advocates for equitable representation of historically marginalized voices in children's publishing, with long histories of doing that work before it entered the mainstream discourse, and long-time BFFs who co-host a podcast called Book Friends Forever. But that's not all, of course. 

Alvina Ling is VP and Editor-in-Chief at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers where she oversees Little, Brown’s picture book, middle grade, and young adult lists, and edits books on all of those lists too. She's worked with creators such as Peter Brown, Bryan Collier, Ed Young, Wendy Mass, Justina Chen, Chris Colfer, Laini Taylor, Libba Bray, Holly Black, Matthew Quick, and of course, the aforementioned Grace Lin. She's kind of a big deal.

Grace Lin, wearing a blue top and standing in front of the bookshelves in her home office.
The one and only Grace Lin!
Grace Lin is, simply put, one of the most accomplished and influential children's book creators of her generation. She's a Newbery Honor medalist, Caldecott Honor medalist, Theodore Geisel Honor medalist, National Book Award finalist, Today Show Kid's Book Club honoree, Champion of Change for Asian American and Pacific Islander Art and Storytelling (as named by the office of President Barack Obama), New York Times bestseller, New England Public Radio commentator, NYT book reviewer, and TEDx speaker. Her art has hung in the White House. The woman is legit

Alvina and Grace really are best friends forever - they met in fifth grade, wrote endless letters to each other when Alvina's family moved to California, shared an apartment in Boston when Grace blanketing the earth with postcards of her artwork and Alvina was interning at Charlesbridge and The Horn Book, and years later, after Grace had established herself as a respected, working author/illustrator and Alvina had climbed the ladder at Little, Brown for Young Readers, finally worked on their first book together, THE YEAR OF THE DOG, which just so happened to be about their childhood friendship. I mean, seriously, how preposterously sweet is that whole story? You can't make this stuff up, am I right?

Cover image for THE YEAR OF THE DOG by Grace LinThey went on to collaborate on a bunch of books, including Geisel Honor recipient LING & TING: NOT EXACTLY THE SAME, and the middle-grade novel that took hard-working, deeply respected storyteller Grace Lin and elevated her into the kidlit pantheon, WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON, for which Grace received the Newbery Honor medal. 

They had yet to work on a picture book together, however, and in fact Grace hadn't done any PBs at all for a number of years. The birth of her daughter proved the catalyst for The Rebirth of Picture Book Queen Grace Lin, however, as well as the onset of the Lin & Ling BFF Era of PB Dominance. Their first picture book together was A BIG MOONCAKE FOR LITTLE STAR, which was subsequently named a Caldecott Honor book. I mean, of course it was, right? It was their first-ever picture book together! That is bananas!

There was too much useful, superbly defined advice to comprehensively note here, but one that struck me was the intersection of Grace's perception of herself - a storyteller, that is, instead of an author, illustrator, or author/illustrator - and her approach to deciding whether she's writing a picture book, easy reader, or MG novel. In a nutshell, she doesn't really decide at all, because as a storyteller, she approaches each story with the tools at her disposal, which are words and pictures. and the story itself will reveal which format it fits into eventually. PBs are good for stories that focus on small, intimate moments - a family ordering food in DIM SUM FOR EVERYONE!, for example - while novels are much more enveloping and engrossing. And of course, novels don't rely on illustrations the way PBs do. Grace's family apparently tells her she's always in a bad mood when she's writing a novel, which I suspect is not an experience exclusive to her family. *cough*

One of the most interesting parts of the conversation to me personally was Grace's very open and easy admission that she's always been and will probably always be harried by imposter syndrome. Her honesty is refreshing - stature of the kind she possesses is too often accompanied by arrogance, after all - and she followed up with what I think is a very important point. Her insecurity and doubts are parts of her, and they might stop her from feeling like the world needs her to make art, but they don't stop her from knowing she needs to make her art, for her own sake. And honestly, it's useful to know that someone as skilled and deservedly feted as Grace Lin still grapples with imposter syndrome, because it's so clear that the imposter syndrome is wrong. Super wrong. Sooooooo wrong. 

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