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Stage & Studio: Author Grace Lin makes a literary space for Asian Americans

The Newbery-winning author and illustrator of "Where the Mountain Meets the Moon" talks in a podcast about creating tales for kids who don't see themselves in most books.

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Grace Lin, a Taiwanese-American author and illustrator of more than 30 children’s books, is a Newberry, Geisel and Caldecott honoree living in Northampton, Massachusetts. Dmae Lo Roberts talked with Lin for the Stage and Studio podcast about Lin’s childhood, her career, and her drive to create Asian American characters in her works.

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In this podcast you’ll hear music from the stage production by Min Kahng of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, adapted from Lin’s book of the same title, and more. Dmae Lo Roberts, who conducts the interview, is also the director of Oregon Children’s Theatre’s production:

The podcast features music by Min Kahng with Madeleine Tran and full cast in Oregon Children’s Theatre’s Where The Mountain Meets The Moon. Subscribe and listen to Stage & Studio on: AppleGoogleSpotify, Android and Sticher.
Hear past shows on Stage & Studio website.

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“I felt this kind of strange sense of alienation; books became kind of my friends and I loved books so much. And so, um, whenever there was a school project, I always made a book. You know, when, when there was a, a project on the Vikings? I remember my friend Jill made a, a Viking helmet and my friend Charlotte made a Viking boat, but I made a book about the Vikings because I just loved making.”

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Grace Lin grew up in upstate New York, where she and her sisters were the only Asian American kids in her elementary school.  She didn’t see herself reflected in the books she read or the television she watched. That experience led her to create her own books when she was a child.

She went on to pursue a career in art. Her parents, a scientist and botanist, reluctantly agreed, much to her relatives’ dismay. She carved a career for herself by putting Asian lead characters and Asian themes in her books so that other kids wouldn’t feel like they were the only Asians in their classroom, and it helped her own sense of identity.

“It was only through the making of these books for all these years, book after book, after book, that I finally feel comfortable and confident with the Asian part of my identity. I really feel like I can claim the Asian part of my Asian Americanness, you know, and that is the gift that my books give me.”

Her most well-known book is Where The Mountain Meets The Moon, winner of the Newbery Honor in 2009, with an Asian girl heroine who goes on an epic quest to find good fortune for her family. Lin had a brief encounter with a Hollywood agent at the time to shop the book around to make a film adaptation but met a stone wall when he asked what her “dealbreaker” would be.

“I said, you can’t change any of the characters from Asian to Caucasian. Right?  That’s pretty basic,” she recounted. “He said, oh, oh my gosh. And there was kinda this silence, and he said, ‘well, I guess it will have to be animation then,’ and then all of a sudden it seemed like all the interests died away.”

Yet that didn’t dissuade Grace Lin from agreeing to theater adaptations of her novel, which she says she preferred.

Her new book, due out in September, is Chinese Menu, which tells the legends and tales behind the creation of American Chinese food. You can pre-order here. 

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Grace Lin saw photos of the Oregon Children’s Theatre production of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and decided to fly her family to see the show on Saturday, May 27, at 2 p.m. OCT and Green Bean Books are collaborating on a book-signing after that performance in the lobby of the Newmark Theatre, where the show is being performed. She says she was inspired to go to Souzhou, China, to do research for the book after visiting Portland’s Lan Su Chinese Garden.

More about Grace Lin:  Before she worked as an award-winning and New York Times bestselling author/illustrator of picture books, early readers and middle grade novels, Grace Lin was the only Asian girl (except for her sisters) going to her elementary school in Upstate New York. That experience has influenced her books—including her Newbery Honor Where The Mountain Meets The Moon, her Geisel Honor LING & TING, her National Book Award finalist When the Sea Turned to Silver and her Caldecott Honor A Big Mooncake For a Little Star.

It also has caused Grace to persevere for diversity as an occasional New England Public Radio commentator and in her TEDx talk “The Windows and Mirrors of Your Child’s Bookshelf,” as well as her PBSNewHour video essay “What to do when you realize classic books from your childhood are racist?” She continued this mission with a hundred episodes of the podcast kidlitwomen* and now hosts two other podcasts: Book Friends Forever and Kids Ask Authors.

In 2016, Grace’s art was displayed at the White House and Grace, herself, was recognized by President Obama’s office as a Champion of Change for Asian American and Pacific Islander Art and Storytelling. In 2022, Grace was awarded the Children’s Literature Legacy Award from the American Library Association. Grace is a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design and lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, with her husband, daughter and five chickens.

Samson Syharath and Madeleine Tran in OCT’s Where The Mountain Meets The Moon – Photo: Owen Carey

The stage production of Where The Mountain Meets The Moon is based on the Newbery award-winning novel by Grace Lin. Created for the stage by Min Kahng, it’s a musical theater production celebrating Chinese folklore and culture. The production features an all Asian American cast and Chinese Opera choreography and Chinese brush painting artwork.  (Read Bob Hicks’ review on ArtsWatch.)

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Oregon Cultural Trust

Oregon Children’s Theatre presents:

Runs through May 28, 2023
Saturdays at 2 pm & 5 pm
Sundays at 11 am & 2 pm

Newmark Theatre, 1111 S.W. Broadway, Portland
Recommended for ages 6 and up

Ticket prices range from $22–$45. $5 tickets available through the RACC Arts for All Program.

Jenny Yokoyama, Beatriz Abella, Jeremy Abe, Madeleine Tran, Kerry Kitagawa, Lulu Kashiwabara. Photo by Dmae Lo Roberts

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Dmae Roberts is a two-time Peabody winning radio producer, writer and theatre artist. Her work is often autobiographical and cross-cultural and informed by her biracial identity. Her Peabody award-winning documentary Mei Mei, a Daughter’s Song is a harrowing account of her mother’s childhood in Taiwan during WWII. She adapted this radio documentary into a film. She won a second Peabody-award for her eight-hour Crossing East documentary, the first Asian American history series on public radio. She received the Dr. Suzanne Ahn Civil Rights and Social Justice award from the Asian American Journalists Association and was selected as a United States Artists (USA) Fellow. Her stage plays and essays have been published in numerous publications. She published her memoir The Letting Go Trilogies: Stories of a Mixed-Race Family in 2016. As a theatre artist, she has won two Drammys, one for her acting and one for her play Picasso In The Back Seat which also won the Oregon Book Award. Her plays have been produced in Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles, NYC and Florida. Roberts is the executive producer of MediaRites, a nonprofit multicultural production organization and co-founder of Theatre Diaspora, an Asian American/Pacific Islander non-profit theatre that started as a project of MediaRites. She created the Crossing East Archive of more than 200 hours of broadcast-quality, pan-AAPI interviews and oral histories. For 23 years, Roberts volunteered to host and produce Stage & Studio live on KBOO radio. In 2009, she started the podcast on StagenStudio.com, which continues at ArtsWatch.

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