Profile of 2022 Caldecott Medal winner Jason Chin

Chin family snapshots. At left, Michael (with headphones) and Jason;
at right, the brothers with their father, Raymond.
Photos: Mary Chin.

When my brother was in high school, he had a plan. He would call up legendary illustrator and Caldecott Medal winner Trina Schart Hyman to see if she would look at his art.

Every kid who grew up in Lyme, New Hampshire, at the time knew of Trina as the lady who visited the school to draw ribbing caricatures of the principal. For Jason, she had also become one of his illustration idols. And if one of your idols happens to have their phone number listed in the staple-bound Lyme town phone book, then you should probably give them a call. So, he took our phone to the most distant corner the cord would allow and dialed. She told him to come to her house and bring his artwork.

One perk of having a high-school art teacher as a mother is that when you have a chance to show your artwork to your idol, she can give you tips on how to present it. After helping Jason assemble a portfolio, our mom dropped him off in front of Trina’s old farmhouse on the outskirts of town.

Inside, they talked about art and Jason’s interests. Trina treated him like a peer. Jason was thrilled, and the visits became regular.

He eagerly and anxiously awaited every visit. When he called to invite himself over, she was usually ready with a quick-witted reply: “Sure! I have some poison ivy that needs to be taken care of.” When Jason would ramble on too long about his Star Wars fan art, she would roll her eyes and shoo him out the door. But during these visits, she would impart lessons that I see ingrained in his artistic process to this day. She taught him about the dedication it takes to make great art, how to immerse yourself in the story and characters, and the never-ending frustration of living with imperfection. He wasn’t really learning how to make art so much as he was learning how to be an artist.

When Jason’s class was about to graduate from the illustration program at Syracuse University, they were instructed to make postcards featuring their art and contact information. They would then send the cards en masse to publishers and art directors as a symbolic send-off into the world of professional art. Trina had warned Jason about this next part: “It’s going to be hard. But you can do it.”

After college, Trina connected Jason with her friend and fellow illustrator Hilary Knight, of Eloise fame. Jason worked a summer for Knight organizing his original art. This connection led to another illustration-adjacent job, as a bookseller at Books of Wonder in New York City. Jason’s first big break didn’t come from these connections, but rather from an art director who had received his college postcard and reached out to him about illustrating the book Chinese New Year, written by Judith Jango-Cohen.

During this period, Jason would ride the subway with his portfolio to meet with any art directors who would make time for an aspiring artist. One of these meetings was with Claire Counihan, the art director at Holiday House. She offered an observation that the industry might be moving toward nonfiction books. Jason, who had grown up on fairy tales and folktales, ended up turning his love of science and nature into an acclaimed career writing and illustrating children’s books, and a fifteen-year relationship with editor Neal Porter.

When Neal first sent the manuscript for Watercress, Jason immediately recalled one of our family stories. Our father grew up in Wilmington, Delaware, as the son of Chinese immigrants. One day in first grade, his teacher had each student tell the class what they had for breakfast. When it was our father’s turn, he didn’t have an English word for his breakfast, and he said in Toisanese, “Nguk byong.” He then had to explain to his teacher that it had pork and egg, and you ate it with rice. His classmates were in disbelief that anyone would have rice for breakfast! Upset, he went home and demanded “American food” from that point forward. (Years later our Pau Pau would admit that this incident didn’t faze her. Turns out, pouring milk over cereal is a bit easier than mincing pork and boiling rice before the sun is up.)

Jason already knew many of the themes and emotions in Watercress, and he knew how special Andrea Wang’s text was. When he submitted his illustrations, he was worried that the art might not live up to her story. He wondered if kids would respond to a book that was long on images of corn and dining-room tables but short on enticing “visual hooks.” After seeing the proof, he was relieved at how it all came together. “It was true and honest,” he told me. “I was proud to have been a part of this and contribute to it, regardless of how it would be received.”

As Jason’s brother, I sometimes get a sneak peek at his upcoming books. He’s always humble and invariably gives them mixed reviews. The highest praise is usually around a detail that “worked out well.” With Watercress, I remember him telling me, “Check out this story I’m working on. It’s a good one.” I immediately noticed that he said “good” instead of his usual “pretty good,” which felt like a resounding endorsement to me.

When I asked him about the book’s success, Jason was quick to share credit, from the beauty of the words that elevated the art, to the guidance of his art director, to the support from his editor and mentors, to the color separators, who were able to make all the “mustard yellow” pictures sing on the page. When talking about the award, his first impulse was to praise the other worthy books that should also be celebrated. (He even expounded at great length on the history behind the Caldecott, which helped me understand why Trina needed to push him out the door on occasion.) It seems like the more success Jason has had, the better he has become at downplaying; the more people want to talk about him, the more skilled he has become at redirecting to others.

Trina passed eighteen years before Jason joined her as a fellow winner of the Caldecott Medal. Yet Trina, somehow, had one more piece of wisdom that Jason needed to hear. When Trina’s daughter heard the big news, she shared, for the first time, an old memory: “Do you know what my mom said to me right after your first visit? She called and told me, ‘You wouldn’t believe this kid I just met. He’s so f*cking talented.’”

From the July/August 2022 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles, click the tag ALA 2022.

Single copies of this special issue are available for $15.00 including postage and may be ordered from:

Kristy South
Administrative Coordinator, The Horn Book
Phone 888-282-5852 | Fax 614-733-7269

Michael Chin

Michael Chin lives with his wife and daughter in Waltham, Massachusetts. He is a content designer by day and reader of children's books by night.

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Trish Johnson

My students and I e-met Jason for a school presentation earlier this year, and we were mesmerized by his talent, humility and affability. Not long afterward, I read Watercress to all of my classes, preK thru 5. Jason's art communicates his valuable messages with ease and love, and I can vouch that he is carrying forward the inspiration he received from Trina to a new generation.

Posted : Aug 08, 2022 05:34



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