Profile of 2022 Children's Literature Legacy Award winner Grace Lin

"Book Friends Forever": Alvina and Grace as kids (left) and as roommates (right). Photos courtesy of Alvina Ling.

In Grace Lin’s first novel, the semiautobiographical The Year of the Dog, Pacy first meets the new girl, Melody, in the school cafeteria after the lunch lady confuses them (they’re the only two Asian girls in school). As some of you may know, Melody is a character based on me, and Grace and I really did meet as children — I was the new girl. And, while a lunch lady’s microaggression did happen, it wasn’t until a few years after we met.

In real life, Grace and I met at my family’s house when her family came to visit. We had just moved to the small town of New Hartford, New York. Mutual friends introduced us to Grace’s family, who are also Taiwanese ­American. I felt painfully shy as a child, and I think that often came across as being standoffish, but I remember Grace as relentlessly cheerful and friendly. We soon became best friends, bonding over our mutual love of reading. As described in one of our favorite books, Anne of Green Gables, we were kindred spirits.

After my family moved away to ­California three years later (events captured in The Year of the Rat), we kept in touch by writing letters back and forth. In one letter, Grace wrote about applying to art school and said, “I’m going to illustrate children’s books, y’know. That would be so cool. One day when we’re all grown up, you’ll see in a bookstore: ‘Illustrated by Grace P. Lin.’ That would be excellent. Don’t you think?”

Yes, Grace, that would be so excellent! Grace landed at the Rhode Island School of Design studying illustration, while I attended UC Berkeley. We lost touch for a few years while she was studying in Rome her senior year, and after graduating, I departed for Taipei, Taiwan, to study Mandarin Chinese. When I returned, I decided to try to break into book publishing, and knew I needed to move to the East Coast. I decided on Boston and told my parents my plan. “You know who lives in ­Boston?” my mother said. “Grace Lin!” She was still in touch with Grace’s mother. By then, email was a thing, and she gave me Grace’s. “Hi! I’m planning on moving to Boston to try to break into book publishing!” I emailed her. She responded: “That’s great! I just got my first book contract for a picture book! Let’s be roommates!” And so it happened. Grace and I were roommates in Somerville, Massachusetts, both trying to make it in the industry. We both worked at bookstores, Grace at an independent and I at Barnes & Noble. Her first book, The Ugly Vegetables, inspired by her mother’s Chinese vegetable garden, came out with Charlesbridge in July of 1999, which was also when I secured my first full-time job in publishing, as editorial assistant at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

Grace’s goal was to be able to earn a living on children’s books alone. Like other illustrator friends back in the day, she sent out art samples and would also take trips to New York City to meet with art directors and editors in the hope of securing work. Her efforts paid off — she got contracts with Henry Holt, Viking, Random House, Chronicle, and more. The illustration work was coming in steadily, and Grace was also writing and illustrating her own books. I remember the two of us sitting on her bed brainstorming ideas. I would share stories from work — one day, I mentioned that a foreign publisher had sent a fax addressed to “Olvina.” “That’s funny,” Grace said. “That would be the perfect name for a chicken.” And her book about a chicken who flies on an airplane for the first time, Olvina Flies, was born. Sure enough, Grace achieved her goal of quitting her job at the bookstore and becoming a full-time freelancer.

At the same time, we wanted the chance to work together professionally. Because she already had so many picture-book publishers, I asked her if she had any ideas for a novel. She told me she did, but kept it under wraps until she shared with me a first draft. I remember reading that draft with delight, realizing that it was in part inspired by our childhood friendship. I took it through the acquisitions process at Little, Brown, and recall one of my editorial colleagues comparing her to Beverly Cleary. The Year of the Dog launched Grace’s career as a novelist and performed well enough for us to sign her up to a two-book deal. By then she had decided it was time to get a literary agent onboard and signed with Rebecca Sherman at Writers House. It was a relief not to have to deal with financial issues with each other directly!

The first of that two-book deal was The Year of the Rat, and the second book became Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. It was while reading this book that I came to the belated realization that Grace was actually a creative genius. That little girl I’d played house with and read books with was truly brilliant — her previous authored works had mostly been semiautobiographical, but this fantasy was in another realm. An editorial colleague dubbed the book “a Chinese Wizard of Oz.” Grace had the vision of painting luscious full-color illustrations to be sprinkled throughout, reminiscent of the classic books that we grew up reading together. She wanted the book to be a beautiful object, one that a little Asian child would feel proud to read and treasure. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon was launched into future-classic territory. Grace appeared on the TODAY show with Al Roker for his book club, and of course went on to receive a Newbery Honor and become a New York Times bestselling author. It was this book that launched her career to new heights.

* * *

Editor and author at the National Book Awards,
where When the Sea Turned to Silver was a 2016 finalist.

Photo courtesy of Alvina Ling.

But it was also in the middle of writing that book that tragedy hit — her husband, Robert, who had been diagnosed with cancer, died in 2007. Grace and Robert had started dating while Grace and I were roommates. They got married and moved to Los Angeles, right before he was diagnosed in 2002. He had been the one to suggest she try writing fantasy, and she started writing Where the Mountain Meets the Moon to entertain him during his chemotherapy treatments. After he died, she didn’t think she’d be able to finish writing it, but she credits a friend, poet Janet Wong, for urging her to finish. “Now you can write your own ending,” she told Grace. That book, about discovering that the key to fortune and happiness is already within your own power, holds a lesson that Grace took to heart after her husband’s death.

Grace went on to create the Ling & Ting early reader series, the first book garnering a Geisel Honor. The third book in her fantasy trilogy, When the Sea Turned to Silver, was a National Book Award finalist. When Grace set out to write and illustrate A Big Mooncake for Little Star, the first picture book we would work on together in an official capacity, she was experimenting with a new “fadeaway” art style, and it absolutely wowed us all. It was an homage to Blueberries for Sal and featured her daughter, Hazel, as Little Star, and it wowed the Caldecott committee as well, winning her an honor.

Grace has created the books that we both wished existed as kids; she has created so many mirror books for Asian children. While in the waiting room after her daughter Hazel received her first COVID-19 vaccine, they encountered another Asian American mother and child. “Are you Grace Lin, the children’s book author?” the mother asked. “Yes, I am,” Grace answered. “We have your book A Big Mooncake for Little Star!” “Oh, that’s wonderful,” Grace said, and gestured at Hazel. “She’s Little Star!” The other little girl perked up. “No, I’M Little Star!” she said emphatically. This is Grace’s legacy — for children to see themselves in their favorite books. And the success of her books has helped pave the way for more.

Her steady friendship, fierce support, and will to effect change are also her legacy. After Robert’s cancer had recurred, she started the Robert’s Snow for Cancer’s Cure auction and raised over $250,000 for cancer research. In 2015, after my first husband, Greg, also passed away from cancer, she immediately got on a train to NYC to be with me. In 2016, she gave a powerful TEDx Talk about the importance of diversity in children’s books. In 2018, she launched the kidlitwomen* podcast to help fight sexism and inequity in publishing. In 2019 we started our own podcast, Book Friends Forever, and I delighted in the opportunity to be able to speak to her every week. She’s mentored and supported so many people both within and outside of the industry, generous with her time and ideas. She is an author, illustrator, blogger, podcaster, speaker, activist, daughter, mother, wife, and friend.

Grace is prone to being very humble, overly critical of herself and her work, but she has also learned to acknowledge and celebrate her achievements. She had set out to do her best work on her new picture book Once upon a Book (to be published in February 2023), co-written with Kate Messner. When I asked her recently if she’d achieved that goal, she said, “Yes!” And then added, “Well, it’s my best work…so far!”

I know Grace has already left a legacy, but I also know she has another lifetime of a legacy to leave.

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

Alvina Ling

Alvina Ling is vice president and editor in chief at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, where she has worked since 1999, and edits books for all ages, from board books to young adult fiction. She is proud to be a former Horn Book intern.

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