So it’s been a week since the New Jersey SCBWI conference. Already?
Well, I am still all fired up and have a busy writing week to show for it! (Many revising hours — very little human contact — or even virtual activity — not as many revised chapters as I’d like for all that work, but that’s another story. Hey, at least there is forward movement. At least it feels like I am getting somewhere.) Sometimes in writing, and in life, the roads are winding.
Do you know the story of Grace Lin, the author of Newbery Honor-winning “Where The Mountain Meets the Moon?” It’s all over the blogosphere — how she was growing up the only Asian kid in a not very diverse Upstate New York town, how she made herself believe that she wasn’t Asian.
At the beginning of the conference, Grace told us that when she was young, her ambition was to “make the most amazing Sleeping Beauty book of all time.” She studied classical artists, went to Rome to emulate the great masters, and prided herself in creating technically difficult drawings.
But she felt something wasn’t working. Something was off. She started asking herself, “why was I always imitating?”
“You should be an artist,” she said, “because there is something you really want to share with the world.”
I have some things in common with Grace Lin. Growing up in the Soviet Union, I always felt like a bit of an outsider. By the time I was a teen, I couldn’t wait to cross the ocean. When I got here, I was so ready to embrace everything American — and toss everything Russian into the depths of history. When I first arrived here, the immigration officials stamped my first name with an embarrassingly long “Yekaterina” spelling that I hated. In a New York City high school, I told new friends to just call me Kate.
Now, eighteen years later, my American skin feels so comfortable. In so many ways it feels truer than the Russian one that never did fit. And yet, I find myself writing a second novel set in the country of my birth — the Soviet Union. “Why do you need the stupid Russia?” my mom asks me. “Americans want to read something American.” And a part of me cannot wait to tell those sorts of stories too. I want to explore my today and my tomorrow, the country I call home. But first, after wanting nothing to do with any trace of Rusian-ness, I dig into these Russian-Jewish stories that are a part of my history. I dig into the past, into the pain.
But back to Grace Lin.
When she started her career with a small publisher Orchard Press as an author-illustrator, she was ecstatic. Not only was she going to be able to pay some of those bills doing what she loved with her first picture book “The Ugly Vegetables,” but the world was going to finally see her true vision, hear her authentic voice. Except, she had to keep her expectations small. Several times in the beginning of her publishing journey, Grace Lin was reminded that she was a “multicultural author,” even by the editor who first discovered her. Being a multicultural author was great and everything. But it meant Grace’s books were in a niche market, which placed a definite ceiling on how wide an audience she would be able to attract.
“I tried to fight against the multicultural label,” Grace Lin said, “but it was the Asian books I kept getting noticed for.”
And then, of course, she won the Newbery Honor. The book became a New York Times bestseller. Many, many kids of all races are reading it.
“This book melted away all trace of race and gender,” Grace said, “and in that was truly multicultural.”
At the start of the New Jersey SCBWI conference, Grace read from one of the book’s beautiful chapters. She read a story within a story, about doing the impossible — about changing one’s fortune.
I don’t know what can be more inspiring than Grace Lin’s example, and her heroine Minli’s “IMPOSSIBLE” quest of changing her family’s fortune.
Has anyone ever told you that your task was impossible?
If you stop in to say hi here on this blog, one week from today you just might be one FORTUNATE winner of Grace’s inspiring book. Grace autographed it for you, and even sketched in a special lucky rabbit (very timely for the Chinese Year of the Rabbit, by the way). Whether you win this book or not, remember, fortunes can change! 🙂