Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by children's author and illustrator Grace Lin won a Newbery Honor award this past Monday (photos and description of her receiving "the call" found at her blog).
Moon now joins the likes of Charlotte's Web and Beverly Cleary's Ramona books in the pantheon of round silver-stickered classics. That'll do, Moon. That'll do.
Featuring full-color illustrations, Moon is very loosely based on an old Chinese folk tale called "Olive Lake," but the heart of the book pays tribute to Lin's late husband who passed away from cancer at the age of 35, during the writing of the book.
Said Lin in a School Library Journal profile:
"I wanted to finish what became the new novel before he died, but I was only halfway through. I was so devastated. I thought I was going to stop writing children's book entirely. But then a friend, Janet Wong, said 'Perhaps it's better this way. If you had finished it before he died, you would feel you couldn't change anything.'"
"I realized," she says, "I could change the ending."
In Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, young protagonist Minli sets off on a remarkable Wizard of Oz-like journey to ask the Old Man of the Moon to help her impoverished parents. While she meets memorable characters such as a flightles dragon and a boy with a buffalo, her parents grapple with the loneliness of her absence.
A child asked about the moral of the story during Lin's Today show interview, and she said that the loss of her husband during the book's process made her realize that she was "very, very thankful" for the time that they had spent together; so the book ultimately asks readers to do the same: "be thankful for the love that you have."
Newer readers to Lin's work will see that her picture books and novels often draw from Chinese traditions and folklore and tell stories of everyday young Asian American life in gentle and humorous ways. The little girl in the picture book The Ugly Vegetables asks why her mother gardens Chinese vegetables instead of the flowers grown by all their non-Asian neighbors. Middle grade novel The Year of the Dog has Lin's alter ego -- 4th grader Pacy Lin -- wanting to star in her elementary school production of The Wizard of Oz, only to be told by a classmate that "Dorothy isn't Chinese" (based on a true story).
Growing up in upstate New York as the only Asian person in the class (as well as the school, except for her sisters), Lin felt the lack of literary representation of kids such as herself in the books she read and loved as a child. These experiences helped lead her to create books that not only entertain kids, but also spread appreciation of Asian American culture and encourage Asian American children to embrace their identities.
She explores some of those motivations in enlightening essays such as "Why Couldn't Snow White be Chinese?" and "How I Came to Terms with Being a Multicultural Author."
Many young professionals and beyond probably read Asian American authors of adult novels and non-fiction and discuss correspondingly complicated and thought-provoking issues, but it can be easy to forget that education starts young -- so young, even before you learn how to read.
Change can come from something as simple and elegant as a series of picture books depicting contemporary Asian American family life -- from celebrating the Lunar New Year to flying a Chinese dragon kite to sharing a meal of delicious dim sum. Especially for children, books provide a vital and irreplaceable conduit through which they learn to see the world.
Despite all the awards Lin has received, I'm sure few of them mean more than feedback such as this review on Amazon: "I never heard my Asian American daughter say these words ['Mama, I love this book.'] until she read The Year of the Dog."
Now I feel the urge to buy some children's books ... and give them away to young readers. As for myself, there is a picture book called Dim Sum for Everyone! ... and I want it. I want to eat it.
Visit Grace Lin's website for behind-the-book vignettes and fun sketches of her family.