Five questions for Grace Lin

Caldecott (for A Big Mooncake for Little Star in 2019), Newbery (for Where the Mountain Meets the Moon in 2010), and Geisel (for Ling & Ting: Not Exactly the Same! in 2011) honoree Grace Lin’s new Storytelling Math board book series (Charlesbridge, 3-5 years) fulfills both parts of its name: presenting math (and math-adjacent) concepts for the very youngest through entertaining, vividly illustrated stories celebrating friendship and our four seasons.

1. Where did the idea of a series of board books about math concepts come from?

Grace Lin: When my daughter was born eight years ago (before We Need Diverse Books came onto the scene) I was pretty frustrated with board books. I found very few starring babies of color, and most were part of the Global Fund for Children series. Those, however lovely, still gave the impression that non-white babies were slightly “exotic” and not commonplace in mainstream America. So, that planted a deep seed in me to create a board book that showed babies of color doing ordinary, everyday things.

A few years later, during an NCTE conference, I saw the Baby Loves Science series at the Charlesbridge booth. I was extremely excited and told senior editor Alyssa Mito Pusey about how I had been wanting to make similar books. We brainstormed a couple ideas but nothing seemed right.

Photo: Danielle Tait

A year or so later, Alyssa contacted me because Charlesbridge was teaming up with TERC to create a Storytelling Math series.

“Would you be interested in making math board books?” she asked.

“Math?” I hesitated. “Like numbers?”

“No, we want to show that math is more than numbers, that math is ordinary and just a part of our everyday lives.”

And when she said that, I realized that their ambition perfectly aligned with what I wanted to do with diversity in board books. So it was a perfect match!

2. When did the seasons (and the friendships!) enter in?

GL: Alyssa and I decided that a small series of four board books would be the most successful to accomplish our goals; and with there being four seasons here in New England (and my own secret desire to do seasonal board books) it made sense to use seasons as a framework. The Asian girl, Mei, in the series is obviously based on my own daughter, and I used the “everyday” (sense a theme?) fun that she has alone and with her friends — Olivia and Manny are based on real kids, visually as well as personality-wise — to guide the stories.

3. What was the biggest challenge in crafting simple texts that are both factual and board-book appropriate?

GL: I think the biggest challenge was to get out of the mind frame that “math is numbers.” I kept thinking it had to be kids counting, but after many talks with Marlene Kliman, a senior scientist and math specialist at TERC, she really opened my eyes to how we use math without even knowing it — sorting, sharing, comparing, finding, waiting. Once I realized that, a world of potential stories opened up, and the harder thing became choosing what to write about. I was lucky to have Marlene and Alyssa helping to make sure the terms I used were most useful concerning the math (do I use “ball” or “sphere?”) and I was also lucky that I was pretty well-versed in board books from reading with my own daughter.

4. Was math a favorite of yours in school, or not so much?

GL: Ha! Not so much. My older sister excelled at math and the “Asians are good at math” stereotype caused me to rebel against the subject when I was younger. When I grew older, that willful ignorance made me feel rather intimidated. However, watching my young daughter (who has neither hang-up) have fun with math has really made me want to encourage her, and it has forced me to get over my fear and embrace math with less trepidation. I hope these books plant the seed that math is interesting, enjoyable, and for everyone at an early age...I probably needed them!

5. How does your art process for these books compare to something like Ling and Ting or A Big Mooncake for Little Star?

GL: Though readers may think all my art looks the same [ — Ed note: we don’t!], I like to think I illustrate slightly differently for each book, and that the story dictates everything. Am I telling a story with cultural elements that calls for folk-art influence (Where the Mountain Meets the Moon)? Or a fantastical story that calls for a kind of magical realism (A Big Mooncake for Little Star)? Or one that speaks directly to a child reader and calls for a mixture of sophistication and naiveté? (which is who they are) That is how I approached the art for these board books. I think the pictures are a little bit more refined than the Ling and Ting art because those characters were more whimsical. Mei, Olivia, and Manny are more true-to-life, so I tried to depict them just a touch more realistically — but with the same aim of making the art be expressions of what I think children, these math concepts, and these board books are: deceptively simple and wiser than what we may initially think.

From the October 2020 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Horn Book
Horn Book

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