Minh Lê is an early-childhood policy expert. As a children’s book author, he has released great books such as Let Me Finish! and Drawn Together. I interviewed him about his work on September 1, 2018, following his book signing session at the Library of Congress National Book Festival in Washington, D.C.
When did you decide you wanted to be a children’s book author?
That’s a great question. I’ve always loved picture books as a format since I was a kid. When I was in college, I was a psychology major, but the one class in four years that stuck with me was an “Intro to Literature” course.
When I graduated and people asked me what I wanted to do, my answer was usually to be a small-town librarian and write children’s books. I kind of always knew that … But after graduating, I worked in children’s policy [as] a career path but I could never go with that idea of writing something. It wasn’t until 2014 that finally sent something out into the world, but it’s the one thing I knew that I wanted to do.
I saw in your bio that your ‘favorite place to be is in the middle of a good book.’ What are you reading now?
Well, I just finished judging for the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, which included reading 1,000 books! Right now, I’m reading a book called Darius the Great Is Not Okay (by Adib Khorram). It’s an amazing debut.
Last year, I interviewed Isabel Roxas, who did the amazing artwork for your book Let Me Finish!
Oh, she’s great!
I was so excited to find you have a new book, Drawn Together. How did the idea about the boy and his grandfather come to you?
That’s very much inspired by my childhood. I’m Vietnamese American. Vietnamese was actually my first language. There’s video of me when I was four years old, speaking Vietnamese much better than I do now. I’ve let it slip over time.
Those early scenes of the boy and the grandfather sitting there together in awkward silence and figuring out how to connect are like straight out of my childhood. I wanted to write something that honored that relationship, both the struggle to connect but also getting to the idea that the relationship was deeper and stronger than what we could or could not say to each other.
How closely did you work with Dan Santat on his illustrations?
What’s interesting is that Dan and I didn’t actually speak about the book for the entire process. I tend to gravitate to picture books where the story is told mostly through the illustrations. It’s strange. It’s kind of counter intuitive to be a writer who doesn’t like words. (laughs) I like to keep the words at a minimum.
I write the manuscripts with that in mind, hoping to put just enough notes for the general story arc. I let the illustrator take it from there and work their magic. I would submit the manuscript and our editor Rotem Moscovich would send it to Dan. She would share sketches, but [Dan and I] never directly corresponded on it.
Then where did the idea to use colors for the grandson and black and white for the grandfather originate?
In the manuscript, it says that the boy uses markers and the grandfather uses ink and brush. By I never specified the fact that one was color and the other was black and white. My hope was that’s how he would interpret it. I wanted to give him the room to figure it out.
Talking to him [later], he’s like, “Well, I had to put myself in the mindset of a kid with markers and a grandfather painting. Obviously, it would be black and white since it’s the ink that he’s using.” It unfolded exactly I hoped and it was all Dan pulling that out of the manuscript.
An element that grabbed me was having the animals: a dragon and a monkey. Were those also included in your notes to Dan?
The dragon was in the notes because for me, that was a very strong part of the narrative arc. If you noticed, the dragon appears earlier when they’re watching TV together. That moment where the dragon comes back is when they feel the most distance, signaling the return of the disconnect.
There’s a beautiful fish in there and a monkey that are all Dan’s. He jokes that when there’s a page that says “They build a world that words can’t describe,” I gave him absolutely no notes on that.
I loved the ones where they “see each other for the first time” and “things we could never say come pouring out.”
I love those spreads. That second page, I think the illustration notes said that the grandfather and grandson as their characters through their art build a world together. I wanted to see what Dan can do at that. I didn’t want to over direct.
For me, working on this manuscript, I had the chance to work with Dan Santat. What do I want to see him illustrate? This is the combination of a heartfelt story with some action elements that I know takes advantage of a lot of Dan’s talents.
What about the monkey?
I didn’t know the monkey was going to be there. I talk a lot of times to people about the language gap I have in not being able to speak Vietnamese. It is like the monkey on my back and that’s what I saw in my mind when I saw the monkey. I’m sure that’s not how Dan interprets it.
Are you doing any story time sessions with kids?
I love to go and read the book with students at school visits and bookstores. I love interacting with people. It’s been super touching to have it out there. Inevitability after reading it, someone will come up in tears, because this reminded them of their grandparents or someone in their life they had trouble connecting with.
What’s amazing is that this story is culturally specific and about a natural language barrier. There are also people who say they spoke English with their grandparents, but they just couldn’t find any common ground until cooking or painting together. It’s been really validating and heartwarming to hear people share their experiences. I always think I should apologize for making people cry!
Sometimes those are tears of joy.
What are you working on next?
My next project is for a Green Lantern graphic novel for DC. It’s a new character and story inspired by my grandmother, whereas Drawn Together is inspired by my grandfather. I think I tend to write from a personal place and to see these connect across a spectrum is really great. That comes out about a year from this winter.