Photo Credit: Alexandre Ferron

Did you know that author/illustrator Grace Lin was Chinese? Well, she didn’t.

As a child, she was the only Asian in her elementary school, so she saw herself as an ordinary white, middle-class kid living in upstate New York. She pretended she wasn’t Asian. None of the books she read had characters that looked like her. It wasn’t until her school librarian pulled out “The Five Chinese Brothers”, the sole ethnic title, that Grace was reminded she was different.

At the NJ-SCBWI conference in Princeton this past weekend, Grace Lin gave the keynote presentation and told us about her identity crisis as an illustrator. In art school she imitated styles and she made art to impress other people. She wanted to hear, “You’re such a great artist, Grace! How do you draw so well?”

But she soon realized she was copying others, wanting to be like Michaelangelo, and making art for the wrong reasons. “Be an artist because you have something to share with the world,” she told us. So Grace began to draw things that made her happy.

She found that Chinese folk art, with its bright colors, patterns and lack of perspective appealed to her. Every inch of the illustration was utilized–there were no blank spaces. This folk art resembled Matisse, and she began to see an East-West commonality in the art she preferred, which became an East-West identity that she embraced.

If Grace was to make art that was important to her, she had to think of what was most important in her life: her family. So she created a family portrait that was uniquely her own–colorful, vibrant and in a style that was not seeking to impress, but merely being who she was.

Grace explained to us that our art should have a personal connection. “If it’s not important to me, why do it?” Her first book was very personal, reflecting on the time she spent with her mother in the garden, tending to Chinese vegetables. She used to be embarrassed by the strange plants that grew outside her home, but she now realized the importance of her heritage. She remembered how she never saw herself in books, and she wanted to give other Asian children the chance to see themselves represented.

Instead of being pigeon-holed as an ethnic author, Grace Lin has seen her books melt away race and culture and appeal to every child. “Pre-conceived notions of the market don’t really matter,” she said. She reminded us that if we create what we love, what’s important, our passion will always shine through and find an audience.

Up Next from the Conference: Humor in Picture Books