Minh Lê and Dan Santat Talk with Roger

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Mihn Lê (left) and Dan Santat
Minh Lê photo by Daniel Corey
Dan Santat photo by Dan Santat

In Built to Last, their fourth collaboration, author Minh Lê and illustrator Dan Santat explore the nature of collaboration itself as two boys, looking suspiciously like their makers, create and destroy and create again. Art imitating life?

Roger Sutton: How much meta-understanding are we to make of the relationship between Dan and Minh with this book?

Minh Lê: Each of our previous books — Drawn TogetherLiftand The Blur — concentrates on a different relationship. Drawn Together is kids and grandparents; Lift is siblings; The Blur is kids and their parents or the adults in their lives. When I was thinking about the next project for us to do together, I threw Dan this story about friends. The idea of those characters looking like baby Minh and baby Dan who grow up to be friends was a layer that Dan added on to it.

Dan Santat: I thought that’s what you intended; I just filled in the blanks.

ML: I love that that’s how it came out. The illustrations add that meta layer to the story. There was room for that in the manuscript, but I didn’t know that was going to happen. When my wife, Amy, and I first saw a PDF of Dan’s sketches, we were on the floor laughing. It was such a sweet surprise.

RS: Minh, you write such spare texts that, on their own, I wouldn’t know what to make of if I were an illustrator. Dan, what did you know coming in? Did you have anything beyond the manuscript?

DS: It's rare that a writer knows when to hold back and let the illustrator dictate what the visuals will be. With Minh’s text, there's a balance of show, don't tell, where he says just enough and understands that the illustrations will carry the rest of the narrative. He gives some brief notes, but he's open to ideas of what’s possible. I can’t speak for every illustrator, but I like having that freedom. 

RS: And would you see these notes along with the original manuscript?

DS: It varies. With Drawn Together, Minh alluded to a Vietnamese family in the story. It was the first time we were working together, so I asked through the editor, Rotem Moscovich, if it was okay to have the family be Thai, and Minh was perfectly fine with that. I could dig into my own history and look at old family photos. There’s a beautiful Thai temple near where I live, and I could get all the resources that I needed.

ML: When I’m working with an illustrator, especially one as talented as Dan, it's in my best interest as a writer to leave room for the illustrator’s storytelling. It’s a collaboration.

DS: Minh, Rotem, and I can look at the whole project and see connections in the narrative that can be made visually, and we tighten the text. In Lift, Minh’s text never alluded to the scene where the girl enters the jungle. I had added a Bengal tiger in the scene, and then we noticed that her little brother has a stuffed animal — originally, I think I made it a teddy bear or a dog. In the revisions we realized there should be a connection between the real world and the imaginary one. The little brother’s stuffed animal should be a tiger to tie it to the jungle scene. That narrative device of connecting certain visuals in the real world to what is imagined came together. By revisiting the outlines, notes, and sketches, we found ways to strengthen the story as a team. 

RS: And you have that same parallel here, too, between the boys’ real world of play and the imagined world they’re creating when they play.

DS: The difficulty for me with Built to Last was coming up with the tools they would use to make the imagined world — grounding the imaginative world in reality. You can only make so many things with LEGO and Tinkertoys and blocks. I had to consider how someone would make a giant dragon using papier mâché, scissors, tape, and whatever materials they find around the neighborhood.

ML: My worry is, am I leaving Dan too much space, putting too much of the onus on Dan to figure things out? It’s tricky. In Drawn Together, there’s a spread where the text says “and they build a world that not even words could describe,” and it’s like—

DS: That’s a very tall order.

RS: "Not my problem," says Minh.

DS: Exactly. It’s the joke we always go back to. The note in the manuscript said, “Create a world that words can’t describe.” And I thought, Where are we going with this? 

RS: What’s really neat in Built to Last, as well as in Drawn Together, is that the open-endedness of the text doesn't become an excuse for the illustrator to go wild. At the core of the story is the friendship between the boys and their creative work together. We’ve all seen picture books where the kids are playing in the living room, and they make something up. They go off to another world, or they go off to dreamland. But often, it’s an excuse for some sumptuous fantasy painting. I don’t see that here. Which, you know, thumbs up.

ML: I’ve been sharing this with kids, and there’s a nice rhythm of going to the imaginative world and back to reality when things come tumbling down. Teachers say that's so valuable because kids get frustrated all the time. The hope is that there’s some emotional reality that kids see reflected back at them: to see these kids in the story building things and having them fall apart, then the kids laugh about it or get upset with each other, and then figure out a way back. My question is, will people think Dan and I had a huge falling out at some point that we had to repair. We didn’t! 

DS: My concern is whether building worlds with toys is something kids these days still do. I hope they are. I hope they can relate. I hear parents talking about their kids on electronic devices building worlds in Minecraft.

ML: If it's any consolation, I was talking to a children’s librarian in Wisconsin, and she said, “This is the maker space book we've been waiting for.” All their libraries have maker spaces. She told me that kids are constantly working and building together. Even if they're building together in Minecraft or some other video game, there's still collaboration and a creative process that I think can translate to any format.

DS: I tend to fail to see the bigger picture. When Drawn Together came out, I thought, Asian families are really going to connect with this story. I didn’t realize that there are a lot of cultures where generations can’t communicate in the same language and that people from other backgrounds could embrace that book.

RS: I didn’t think of Drawn Together as an Asian book in particular; I did think of it as a grandparent book. There is some Thai imagery in Built to Last, right? The great turtle?

DS: That’s indicative of a lot of different cultures. Japanese legends say the world was built on the back of a turtle, which is the cause of earthquakes. I'm working on my next memoir, and there’s a lot about Thai culture that’s been absorbed from other cultures. My father was an expat, and his family were expats from China. So there's a little bit of Chinese culture. My mom has a little bit of Vietnamese and west Asian in there. Thailand is a mélange of different Asian cultures, so you do find a lot of similarities. Thailand wasn’t up to speed on anything until the advent of the Internet.

ML: What I love about the pan-Asian imagery that Dan put in there is, again, it wasn't in the manuscript. Adding that pan-Asian element to the story of two characters playing together and exploring, that mirrors Dan’s and my exploring different aspects of our Asian identities, things that we've grappled with. There are many things particular to Vietnamese culture, but also many things that draw on different Asian cultures and traditions. It's both what we have in common and what we don't that makes things interesting, right?

RS: I think kids, regardless of their ethnicity, reading this book are going to see two boys doing things together.

DS: Right. I don’t think I’ve ever approached the art to any of our books the same way. With Drawn Together, I had to inhabit the mind of a child and grandfather and draw like they would; the drawing style itself became a representation of the character. Lift was more of a cinematic painterly style. With The Blur, I did a lot of imagery with fading of colors and then these magical moments with big bright dots. I approached Built to Last with this maker attitude. I'm going to start with lines, and I'm going to build up and see what I create with it. Let my mind go wherever.

RS: Just like the story.

ML: Like Roger said, your process is reflective of the story itself. And like we were saying before, again, I'm a sucker for meta-narrative, so I'm latching on to any, any angle I can find on that. But if you're approaching each book from a different angle, it's similar to these boys working together with different materials — blocks versus Tinkertoys versus papier mâché. They’re using a different approach with each thing that they're building, and there’s an evolution to their different projects. It’s similar to how we approach the books. Each one has its different flavor, each one comes at the story in a different way. I love that your process reflects that, which is really fun.

DS: I appreciate the fact that neither you nor I are ever certain of what the end product is going to be.

RS: What do you do when, like the boys here, everything falls apart when you’re creating a book? Have you ever gotten far along with a project and thought, This sucks or This really isn’t working, I need to throw this away?

ML: For me that happens in the brainstorming stage. I’ll have an idea tumbling in my head, and it never takes shape. That’s different than things falling apart at the end. I think, Is it ever going to become something? And if it doesn't, I just don't share it. I set that sort of thing aside, and maybe it will have its moment at some point in the future. But I don't send those to Dan.

DS: When I'm working on the art, there are times that I have something in my head that I think is going to look great, and when I finally craft it, it's not what I envisioned. Here’s something that I've found myself get caught in several times: Sometimes you get so caught up in the world building that you have to remind yourself that it's not about the world, it's about the characters. For kids, there's so much of the world that they have yet to see. Sometimes the magic is in the more conventional route.

RS: Are you consulting with Minh at any point during the process?

DS: I am not.

RS: Do you send telepathic beams to Dan saying what you think he should do?

ML: No, I think this is where having a great editor comes in. I build that space for collaboration into the manuscript itself. And I have complete trust in Dan to figure things out on his end. We were talking about that restraint with Lift, keeping it from getting overly fantastical. Every time I share the book it works out perfectly; having those fantastical places that are still relatable allows kids to use their imaginations.

DS: I would say Dan fifteen years ago would have gone the other route. But as I've spent more years making books and communicating with kids, I’ve realized that you don't want to go too far beyond what kids can easily comprehend because then it just turns into "What's this?” “What's that?” Presenting the ordinary as magical.

RS: When you were kids, if you remember, how did you guys deal with frustration? I was the sort of kid who got frustrated very easily when I couldn't make my fingers do what my mind wanted them to do. What about you? Were you perseverers?

ML: I think my frustration would manifest itself in very quiet frustration/rage. I wouldn’t throw a tantrum, but I’d storm off. Or give up and walk away. For me it was less of an explosive frustration and more like a contained explosion. That led to lack of perseverance because I would steer clear of things that might potentially be frustrating. And that’s a problem.

RS: Story of my life, man.

ML: You end up preemptively limiting yourself because you’re navigating space to find the thing that does come easily, and you don’t push those boundaries.

DS: I got frustrated if I couldn’t do something in art, specifically. I remember one time when I was five years old, I was trying to copy a Norman Rockwell painting with crayons. It was an ad in Time magazine. My dad comes in, and I’m in tears. He asks why I’m crying, and I say, “I can’t do this picture with crayons!” My dad says, “That's Norman Rockwell. You're never going to beat Norman Rockwell.” Thanks, Dad.

ML: But he doesn’t have a Caldecott Medal or a National Book Award, so…

DS: I had this ambition. I would draw something, and I would try it five, six, ten times until I got it right. I was that kid.

RS: You wouldn't give up.

DS: Anger is a really good tool. Anger and frustration. I hate to say it, but they’re really good tools.

RS: Did either of you have childhood friendships to draw on in creating this story? Did you have someone like these boys have each other?

DS: I had a group of little nerd friends. We built forts when we were younger, but as we got older, my friends formed a band. I was the guy painting the drum kit and making T-shirts for them. It went nowhere beyond the garage they played in, but there was something about crafting this world together and making mixtapes and album covers and things like that. The five of us had a common interest in a dream. It's less about creating something for other people to appreciate; you're doing it for your friends. The band was called Mutual Hatred.

RS: How about you, Minh?

ML: My version of the band was my high school buddies and I made goofy movies with our camcorders. I'm so grateful that social media didn't exist back then because I would have uploaded those terrible movies. But like Dan said, back then we were creating things just for the sheer joy of creating something. There was no real agenda, no real goal, other than the fun of it.

RS: There are dream goals, like Dan was talking about, We're gonna have concerts, and we're gonna need T-shirts. We're gonna need album covers. That's part of the play, right?

DS: Sometimes I want to go back to old work and re-craft them. Oh, this is what I meant. This is what I would do with it now.

ML: You need to call Mutual Hatred and see if they can get back together.

RS: That could be your next book: Mutual Hatred. What will you two do next?

ML: I think it's too early to share anything about it, but there is discussion about a fifth, slightly more surreal curveball of a book in the works.

DS: I don't know what you and Rotem are working on with the ending, but I’m really excited for this one.

ML: This is the early part of the process where we’re thinking about a plate of possibilities to offer to Dan and thinking about where he could take it. That's the fun part. Who knows which direction it's going to take, but the books we've been doing so far have veered toward the more heartfelt and sentimental. I want to give him something that lets him go in a more surreal, magical direction. I'm excited.

RS: Did you realize that when you did the first book together that you would become such a team?

ML: I don't know. I was just starting out. It was only my second book, and I was grateful that Dan said yes to an idea. I didn’t want to presume anything. I'm grateful that this partnership has continued.

DS: Drawn Together was one of those books I wished I had written. A big part of it was my lack of understanding of my own culture. My parents wanted me to assimilate so badly that they never took the time to have me embrace my culture. And there wasn't a community for me; we were the only Thai people in town. I was grateful that the manuscript for Drawn Together fell into my lap; it really opened my mind. I felt like it was the book I would have written if A) I had been comfortable with my Thai culture and B) I had the courage to write. And then to follow it up with Lift, which for me was a concept that seemed so brilliant and so obvious. As I read the story, I was thinking, How has nobody come up with this idea yet? I think it was after that I realized, Yeah, we're sticking around for a while.


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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978.

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