HomeChildhood EducationChildren's BookGrace Lin and Kate Messner Discuss Once Upon a Book

Grace Lin and Kate Messner Discuss Once Upon a Book

A podcast interview with Grace Lin and Kate Messner
The Children’s Book Review

In this episode, we have two guests: Newbery, Geisel, and Caldecott honoree Grace Lin and NYT bestselling author Kate Messner, who partnered on the picture book Once Upon a Book.

This incredibly stunning book celebrates the joys of reading, the importance of imagination, and the transportive power of books.

Listen to the Interview

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Grace Lin is the recipient of the Children’s Literature Legacy Award and is the bestselling author and illustrator of over thirty books, including A Big Mooncake for Little Star (a Caldecott Honor), A Big Bed for Little Snow, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (a Newbery Honor), The Year of the Dog, and the Ling & Ting series. Grace is a Rhode Island School of Design graduate and lives in Massachusetts.

Kate Messner is a New York Times bestselling author of more than fifty books for young readers. Kate’s award-winning titles include picture books like Over and Under the Snow and The Brilliant Deep; novels like Breakout and Chirp; engaging nonfiction like The Next President and the History Smashers series; the Ranger in Time Adventures; and the Fergus and Zeke easy readers. Kate lives on Lake Champlain.

Read the Interview

Bianca Schulze: Well, hello, Grace and Kate. Welcome to the Growing Readers podcast. I am so thrilled to have you both here. I was hoping that since it’s your first time for both of you on the podcast, I would love to get to know you both a little bit. In the sense of what motivates you and what guides you and drives you to create books for kids? And why don’t we go with you first, Grace?

Grace Lin: Oh, gosh, that question. We could be here all day. But it’s an interesting question because this past January 1 was New Year’s resolution time. And that’s also when I started to kind of rethink about kind of my writer’s mission statement. And for a long time, probably over 20 years, my writer’s or book creator’s mission statement was always that I wanted to create Asian or Asian American books and get them into the mainstream. That worked some odd years ago. But as time’s gone on, I’ve gotten more and more kind of philosophical about things. And I think now I would say my mission statement, which I kind of rehauled for the New Year, for 2023, was that I want to create books that give kids, especially Asian and Asian American kids, but all kids, a sense of home. And when I say a sense of home, I mean a place of welcome where they feel like they can belong.

Bianca Schulze: Kate, how about you? What motivates you and guides you, and drives you in creating books for kids?

Kate Messner: It’s interesting; when Grace and I were on our book tour for Once Upon a Book, we were actually talking about this and sharing our mission statements, which are the same in some ways but also really different. I think my guiding force in writing and in life really, too, has always been curiosity. Growing up, I was a kid who wondered about everything and asked a million questions, and I love to go out exploring in the woods and turn over rocks and things. And that really is reflected in a lot of the writing that I do.

Much of the writing that I do is about wonder. It’s about curiosity, it’s about nature and history and understanding the world around us and being curious about things we don’t know instead of afraid. So that’s really my goal for kids, is to spark that sense of curiosity and that sense of wonder. And like I said, Grace and I were chatting about that when we were on the book tour for Once Upon a Book. And it’s interesting, this book really kind of reflects both of those mission statements because our main character has this grand adventure, and she gets to explore all these different places and then finds that sense of home at the end.

Bianca Schulze: In terms of when you’re writing, is there something in your day-to-day practices that you think our listeners would find either the most relatable or the most surprising? And Grace, let’s go with you today.

Grace Lin: Actually, during a school visit, someone was asking me, like, oh, what are your habits for writing? How do you get in the mood? And I had to say, well, the truth is, I don’t really think there’s anything I do that gets me into the mood. It’s just like, sometimes I just have to sit down and do it. It’s like a do or do not kind of thing. When it comes to writing, I wish there was something that kind of got me in the mood, like if I played a certain song or if I wore a certain hat, all of a sudden, like, now I feel like writing. But no, it’s just sometimes I just have to sit down and kind of force myself to do the work.

Bianca Schulze: What about you, Kate?

Kate Messner: The same in a lot of ways. I think it’s funny when kids say, what inspires you to write? I have two answers for that, really. One of them is the lofty, creative answer, which is to say, I love telling stories, and it’s magical to be able to sit down and spin whole words, whole worlds out of words. But then there’s a very practical answer, and that is, I also like to eat. When you’re a full-time writer, you need to be producing work. When it’s not one of those grand inspiration days, and those are gifts when they appear when you just can’t wait to sit down and start writing. When it’s not one of those days, I do exactly what Grace does. I just sit down and start. And I find that writing, even bad writing, begets more writing. And bad writing, if you just can get yourself to sit down and write, something often leads to better writing once you’re settled in.

I feel the same way, strangely, about writing and exercise a lot of the time, which is to say starting can be very difficult. I have to really force myself to start, but once I’m sitting there writing, or once I’m running or lifting weights, I’m very happy to be doing it, and I’m happy to continue for a long time. It’s just the starting that gets me. And so that’s what I know about myself as a writer and as a person. If I can get myself to start, then usually everything else is pretty easy from there.

Bianca Schulze: Kate, you mentioned this just ahead of us starting our podcast episode today, but you just got back from Cairo, Egypt, from a school visit, and Grace, it sounds like you’ve already been on a school visit this morning. So how do you kind of manage your days and fit in time for work because you’re both so popular with your school visits?

Grace Lin: Kate, why don’t you go first?

Kate Messner: For sure, I try to schedule my calendar pretty carefully so that I have uninterrupted blocks of time each month where I have time to be writing and days in a row to be writing, especially if I’m working on a novel or a work of longer form nonfiction. It really is helpful to have that time to be able to return to that piece every morning for a period of time. But that said, I also love meeting readers. There’s nothing better than visiting a school where the kids have been reading your books, they’re full of excitement and questions, and they want to share their own stories. And so, I build in time in my yearly schedule to do that, too, because that’s really important to me as a creator, is to get to meet readers.

So, yeah, I just got back a couple of days ago from Egypt. I was visiting readers at the Cairo American College, which is a wonderful pre-k to grade twelve school. And it was great because I got to visit with everybody, from three-year-old preschoolers to seniors who were just on the verge of heading off to university. So, it was really wonderful, and I love both. So, it’s a balance. Tracking that balance is something that I aim for. Sometimes I do better than others. Sometimes I’m like, oh, I’ve got to be a writer again. But it tends to work pretty well. And also, you learn to work on airplanes. I was editing over the Atlantic a couple of days ago, so that works out too.

Grace Lin: Yeah, I used to be able to, especially pre-pandemic—I used to be able to work on the road and do all those kinds of things, but I actually honestly have found it very difficult now to figure out how to balance it. So, I’m definitely a work in process right now, and I think it keeps changing and evolving for me, trying to figure out how to balance it. To me, it’s kind of like having a child. At one point, you’re like, okay, I’ve got this. And then, at least my child, she completely changed. You’re like, okay, and I got to do this. And so that’s kind of how I feel about balancing all my work. It’s kind of like it works for a little while until it doesn’t work, and then I have to figure out something else.

Bianca Schulze: Yeah, I love that. That’s almost like a metaphor for life just in general, that we’re all just works in progress, and life around us continues to change, and we’re always having to adapt.

Here’s a two-part question, and I feel like this is going to lead us into what we’re really here to talk about, which is Once Upon a Book, which is about the transportive power of books. So, I would love to know, when did story become an important part of your lives, and was there a pivotal moment in which you considered yourself a reader? Grace, let’s go with you.

Grace Lin: I think I always loved books, but when you were talking about the pivotal moment, the one that flashed into my head was when there was a student teacher in my second-grade class who, every day after we came in from recess, would read a book, and she was reading the book The Search for Delicious. I remember this very vividly, and I remember just being so entranced when she read that book, like in every day, wishing recess would be over so we could go in, so she could read the book to us. And so, I think I always loved stories before that, but I think that really was the first pivotal moment that really took me away and really made me love what stories could do for you or for people.

Kate Messner: Yeah, that’s a tricky question because, thinking back, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love stories. I kind of feel like I was born loving books. And my family laughs; we have pictures of me as two years old, and I can’t remember back that far, but I’m literally running around the house with a pile of books, like, chasing people around, trying to get somebody to read me a story. I grew up in a pretty big family, and everybody was very busy, and I was like, somebody read to me. So, if we had guests for dinner, I’d be like, oh, great, fresh readers. So, I really can’t remember a time when I didn’t love stories.

I do remember discovering Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books when I was seven or eight years old. And that was the first it was the first time I really, I think, saw myself in a story. And, you know, because there were when I was growing up, there were lots of books about girls who were very princessy, and they were good, and they didn’t get in trouble, and they lived in castles and things, and that just wasn’t me. And I remember the first time I read Ramona and Ellen Tebbits, too, with her trying to do ballet, and she was in her itchy underwear and scratching all over and being very inelegant about the whole thing.

Beverly Cleary’s Girls just really spoke to me, and that really was a turning point for me to discovering this character that I just loved so much and waiting for the next book to come out. And it’s one of the reasons that I love writing series now. I’ve written several serious book novels and chapter book series, and I can so relate to those readers who write saying, when is the next book coming? I need that by June. I’m going on vacation. I think that’s really one of the things that made me a reader.

Bianca Schulze: It’s so fun that you said that because I was just reading about Beverly Cleary today. She had said that the reason she wrote Beezus and Ramona and the Ramona series was exactly the reason that there were kids that weren’t seeing themselves in books, right? In the sense of how you just described it, it was somebody that gets down and dirty and messy and in trouble. And so, it’s fun that that’s why you related to it because that’s why she said she wrote the book. So, I love that very much.

Grace, I read that the idea of Once Upon a Book stemmed from the poster that you created for the 100th anniversary of Children’s Book Week. Do you want to talk to us about how the poster led to the creation of this beautiful book?

Grace Lin: Sure. I was one of the twelve illustrators asked to make a poster for the 100th anniversary of Children’s Book Week. And it’s always been one of my dreams to create a poster for Children’s Book Week. And so, when they asked me, I said yes. Even though my schedule was super full, I was like, I’m going to make room for it. The only thing that you had to include was a character reading. Like, it didn’t have to be a person. It could be a fish, anything you want, but something to do with reading.

And so, at the time, I think I had finished up the artwork for a big moon cake for Little Star, where I kind of was playing with this fade-away style of illustration. And so, using that, I just continued using my daughter and had her walking and reading at the same time, but her dress kind of faded away to the wallpaper behind her, and the wallpaper behind her was full of these birds that were kind of looking over her shoulder, reading the book that she was reading. And I just really was so proud of myself after I did that illustration; I just loved it so much. And I loved it so much that I was like, oh, I would love to do a whole book with this character, this feeling that this illustration kind of invokes. But like I said, I had a pretty full plate at the time, and I was kind of a little bit out of brain power to come up with a good idea for a whole book for it. So, I asked for help. Really that’s what happened.

Authors and illustrators, we tend to have these little social media groups and little online groups where we kind of gossip and talk about things. And I went to one of the groups that I belonged to, and I posted the picture of the illustration I did, and I said, hey, I just made this illustration. I love it. I’d love to do a book on it. Would anybody want to collaborate with me? Does anybody have any ideas for it? Let me know. Then I posted it, and I crossed my fingers that somebody would comment and want to collaborate and make a book out of it. And I was very lucky because someone did, and that person was Kate.

Bianca Schulze: Before Kate jumps in, can I just say that you said two awesome things during that, that I was just like, yes, we need more of this. Where Grace? You said you loved the poster that you created. I feel like sometimes we’re all afraid to say that we love something that we’ve put out into the world. And you said that you were feeling a bit like you needed help. So many of us never reach out and ask for help. We need more of feeling proud of the work that we’ve done and more of asking for help when we need it. So, I had to say that, but Kate, now you can take it away.

Kate Messner: Yeah. So, I was on the other end of that screen, a few states away from Grace, and I was also on deadline for a project and taking a break from it to check in with my writer friends and see how things were going. And I started scrolling, and one of the first things I saw was this glorious painting. It was bright and beautiful, and cozy. And I just fell in love with this piece of art even before I read Grace’s note about it. So, I was like, oh, I’ve got all these things to do. But you know what? I can take ten or 15 minutes and just play because here’s this beautiful world that Grace has created and basically posted an invitation to play in that world, right? It was an invitation to her sandbox.

And so, I said, oh, I can take a few minutes to do this, and I can set a timer on my phone. I’ll get back to my project. So, I sat down and just scribbled a few lines, maybe an opening for a picture book, and posted it and a comment and just said, this is gorgeous. Here are a few lines. And then Grace came back and said, and then keep going. What happens next? So, over the next few weeks, I played around with a draft until I had a rough draft of a story that I was pretty happy with and just sent it to Grace and said, hey, see if this sparks anything. This was really fun, and what a joy to be able to write in response to this piece of art that you created. Grace read that and said, I love this. I’d like to add some more layers and play around with it. Is it okay if I do that?

Grace Lin: I said, yeah, let’s just keep kicking It back and forth. So that was what we did.

Kate Messner: So, we collaborated from there and, over the course of the next few months, working it into a story that we both loved. And the other piece of this that I should say is every author has sort of this list of dream illustrators that they’d love to work with someday. When you’re just an author, and you’re not an author-illustrator, you always have in the back of your mind, wouldn’t it be cool to do a book with this person? And Grace has always been one of those people—I’ve loved her art. When I saw this opportunity, I was like, oh, this might be maybe I could do a book with Grace and have her illustrations in it. So, to get to work with Grace on the story and then see the amazing art that came out of that collaboration was just really a gift.

Bianca Schulze: That’s incredible. So, what did the collaborative process look like in terms of getting the words and getting the artwork done? How did that work, Grace?

Grace Lin: Well, first, Kate wrote the draft, and then—we talk about this at our school visits that we did to launch the book. And I remember she had, like, a scene with otters in the river, and I was like, oh, I’d like to do something more colorful. How about we do the coral reef? So, a lot of things were kind of like things that I wanted to paint. We changed things like that just because I wanted to paint coral reefs over otters and things like that. Not that I don’t like otters. Otters are very cute. But I’d like to paint coral reefs more, and then slowly, we move from there.

I mean, the truth is, for me, when I write and illustrate picture books, usually I’m cutting and cutting sentences more and more as more of the pictures develop, mainly because I feel like we don’t need those words because the pictures are telling it. So that’s kind of my process of creating a picture book. Usually, the more the pictures develop, the more I cut words. And I have to admit; I was a little nervous with Kate because I was like, oh, I hope she doesn’t get mad that I’m like, let’s cross all this out and cross this up. But Kate was wonderful, and she didn’t mind at all. So at least, she didn’t seem like she minded at all.

Kate Messner: No, I definitely didn’t mind. And having worked with a lot of other illustrators, too, that’s part of the process in general, right? When you get the art back, you see there are words that you don’t need anymore because the illustration has done that job, and you don’t want that job done twice. Picture books are so spare with language, and that’s part of the poetry and the beauty of them. So, I was happy to have that back and forth.

Bianca Schulze: Let’s talk a little bit more about the artwork because it is so stunning. And there’s a word that I always sabotage. So, Grace, you’re going to have to correct me, but the illustrations for this book were created in— is it gouache?

Grace Lin: Gouache.

Bianca Schulze: Yes, I got it right. Gouache on arches hot press watercolor paper. So how do you decide even what paper you want to use? Is this a paper you use all of the time? Just tell me a little bit about creating the art.

Grace Lin: Sure. So, I still tend to work traditionally, so all the art is traditionally painted. Like, I drew it by hand, and then I painted it by hand. The medium I use is gouache, which is a thick watercolor, which is kind of like watercolor, but it’s opaque. And Arches is a smooth watercolor paper that I’ve just been using for years and years because it’s—well, honestly, I started using it because it was inexpensive compared to other watercolor papers. And then I just kept going. Though every once in a while. I’m always like; maybe I should try a more expensive watercolor paper now that I can afford something more. But you kind of stick with what you know sometimes.

Bianca Schulze: I love it. Well, I would also really just love to dive into the dress that Alice wears in the book because you already mentioned that from the poster, her dress kind of disappeared into the wallpaper. And so, on every page, when Alice goes on a journey into a new adventure, her dress changes. It’s almost like a chameleon. So obviously, it stemmed from the poster. But what does her dress symbolize to both of you, actually? So, Grace, why don’t you start? And then, Kate, I’d love to hear your thoughts on how her dress changes with the atmosphere behind her.

Grace Lin: So, for me, in this book, I felt like her dress kind of melting into the background is kind of like a visual metaphor of how you get lost in a book. Right. And so, not even just lost in a book, but when you read a book, and you’re so deeply in it, you feel like you become a part of it. Right. And so that was kind of my thought about her dress. Like, she keeps going to all these different places, and she becomes a part of the book and the story in it. But just like a reader, you’re in it. You feel like you’re in it, but you’re not really in it. Right. So that’s why when she’s out of the book, her dress is words, and then when she’s in the book, she kind of, like, melts into the landscape. So that was my reasoning and thought behind the disappearing dress.

Kate Messner: Yeah. I mean, when you’re the author, and you’re not involved in creating the illustrations, there’s a moment in that bookmaking process where you actually get to see the art for the first time. It’s like the morning of your birthday, right, when you get that email, and it’s like you get to open it up and see the world that’s been created. And honestly, that was one of the first things I noticed was the dress and the way it changes. And even in one illustration, there’s an illustration where she’s just stepping into the book, and there’s just a hint of green starting to creep into the dress as she makes that transition from her real world into the story world. I love that metaphor of getting lost in a book. It’s how I always felt as a reader growing up and still do when I read a story that I just fall into. So, I thought it was just perfect.

Bianca Schulze: Kate, let’s stay with you. I would love to know if you have a particular favorite double-page spread.

Kate Messner: I think it’s still the one that most closely mirrors the original, and that is the rainforest spread. There’s so many colorful birds in that one. And it really just takes me back to that original painting that Grace created for Children’s Book Week, that magic of the rainforest scene, and that looked like the birds were actually reading the book over her shoulder. I love that one. I’m a rainforest person. Anyway, I’ve written like, I don’t know, three different books with a rainforest. So that’s probably why. One reason that’s my favorite. But I just love the colors in that piece, too.

Bianca Schulze: Grace, what about you?

Grace Lin: Oh, gosh. I think whenever they ask for a piece of art to show the book, I usually choose the rainforest piece, too, because I feel like that probably gives a good indication. But I have to say that I do like the one where she’s actually stepping into the book. I remember feeling very proud of that one because it’s really, really subtle, and I think maybe I made it too subtle. But when I was painting it, if you look very closely when she’s the place where she’s touching as she walks into the book, it’s a little bit more yellow, and it’s more realistically painted. The black line outline gets thinner and thinner as it gets to her, and then it completely disappears. And then the next page, there’s no black line at all. So, it’s just this transition that I was really, really proud of.

From a technical standpoint, I think maybe there are certain things that I’m proud of. Maybe not because of the actual how it turned out, but just because I was like, oh, good, I really pulled that off. I do know there’s a couple of pages where she’s holding the book, like the close-up of the book, and I wanted her turning the page, and I was like, am I going to be able to paint this realistically enough, so it looks like she’s turning the page? And I’m like, okay, I think I pulled it off. So those are things that I feel really proud of.

Bianca Schulze: Yeah.

Bianca Schulze: So, for me, when I opened the page, that says for the first time about stepping into the story into the book, and so she did are the only words on the page, and it’s like stepping into the book in the rainforest. And that just took my breath away.

Once Upon a Book Illustration

And then my other favorite, and I don’t know which spread I love the most, but it’s Alice almost in a star shape herself, floating through the sky with just a touch of the moon in the corner and the words, the soundless stars twinkled and winked as she floated in the moon’s glowing light. And for me, as a book lover, that just felt like joy and magic and stardust. And I also was wondering if that page is a little bit of an Easter egg in the sense that it pays homage to some of your other books.

Grace Lin: Oh, yes, definitely. It’s definitely an homage to A Big Mooncake for Little Star because it also features my daughter. A Big Mooncake for Little Star is my daughter. And this book is also my daughter in terms of she modeled and posed for it, and I definitely used her likeness, and I used her kind of spirit for both. It was kind of nice for me to do that because it’s like, oh, now Little Star is Big Star. So definitely kind of an allusion to that.

Once Upon a Book Moon Illustration

Bianca Schulze: I love it. And thanks for pronouncing homage correctly. My kids laugh at me all the time about the way I pronounce things. I don’t know if it’s because I’m Australian or because just teaching myself to read words as a kid—but thank you.

Grace Lin: I’m pretty sure both ways. It’s like that word niche, right? It could be niche or niche. Right. So, I think it’s the same thing, homage or homage, but it’s just like whatever you’re used to. It’s hard for me to say what I’m not used to, so that’s why.

Bianca Schulze: I like the sound of homage. So, I’m going to stay with that now, moving forward.

So, let’s go with you, Kate. I’m going to ask you this question, and it’s for both of you, but we’ll start with you, Kate. What impact do you hope Once Upon a Book has on readers?

Kate Messner: The first time I saw the finished copy of this book, I had this moment of wishing my children were small again. And they’re all grown up now. My daughter is 21, and my son is 26. But this is just such a perfect book for families to curl up and read together that I did. I had that pang of I just want to shrink them down to when they were three or four or five years old and read that story again together. And that’s really my hope for that, is that families who are readers and who love books are going to find themselves in this story and find joy in this story and share it together.

I think this is one of those books that grows with you as a reader because there’s a very simple story there about how a girl got to go all these places and then she went home for dinner. But as kids get older, they’re going to see more and more in that story. When Grace and I were out on book tour talking about this book, we were talking with kids of all different ages, from preschoolers on up to fourth and fifth graders. And it’s amazing what those older kids were taking from the art. They were noticing the details and appreciating that metaphor of being transported through a story. And they’re at an age where books have taken care of them already. Stories. These are kids who were home in the early years of the pandemic, and stories were their companions. So, they really appreciated the transformative nature of books.

Bianca Schulze: Grace, what do you hope the impact of your book will be?

Grace Lin: Yeah, I feel like Kate put it so well. There’s not really much to add, but I would just reinforce what she said about I hope that this book brings people together. I feel like it’s a book that’s kind of made for sharing. Right. And so, I kind of hope that it’s a book that a guardian reads with their kid, a teacher reads with their classroom, and a book where all the kids are like, do you see the bunny? I see the bunny. It’s something that is almost like community building or bonding. I think that’s what I would really like for this book to do.

Bianca Schulze: Yeah, well, I think it does all of that. You said that you brought up the bunny. Do you want to elaborate on the bunny a little bit?

Grace Lin: Oh, sure. I get asked about the bunny quite often, and there are two reasons why there is a white rabbit hidden in every spread of the page. It’s an allusion to two very important white rabbits in Eastern and Western literature. So, in Western literature, there’s a very famous Alice who follows a white rabbit, and everybody can usually guess that it’s Alice in Wonderland. And the words on Alice’s dress, when she’s outside of the book, are actually cut from pages of Alice in Wonderland. So that’s one reason why there’s a white Rabbit in this book.

The second reason is because of the very famous White Rabbit in Eastern culture, and that is the Jade Rabbit that lives on the moon. And in Chinese culture, this Jade Rabbit lives on the moon and has many powers. It’s the companion to the moon lady, the goddess of the moon. And what he does is he can find your secret wish and make it come true, and he lives on the moon. And so, to me, in this book, Alice makes a lot of wishes that he makes true. But it’s only when she makes the wish that is closest to her heart to go back home, does he get to go home, too. That he’s like, she’s done. She’s made the final, the best wish of all.

So, to me, I put the White Rabbit in as kind of, I guess, we’re talking about homage, as an homage to my own Eastern and Western culture. It’s kind of like this. Personally, in my own work, I’m very interested in the Asian American, like, what brings it together. It used to be Asian American with a hyphen in between. And I was always interested in what that hyphen is. So those are the things that I think about. And so, this book, The White Rabbit, is the thing that kind of brings the East and West together for me.

Bianca Schulze: Kate, let’s go with you before we end our discussion today. Both you and Grace you’re always putting out books. You have so many books already out there; I imagine that you have to have some upcoming books. So, do you want to tell us if you’ve got something new that we can look forward to? After everybody’s done reading. Once Upon a Book, of course.

Kate Messner: Yeah, I actually have two books coming up this spring and summer, both part of the series. So, the first one comes out at the end of May, and it’s a new book in the Fergus and Zeke series. Fergus and Zeke are two mice who are the classroom pets in Ms. Maxwell’s room, and they love to do everything the kids do. So, they’ve had field trips and field day adventures, and science fair adventures and celebrated the 100th day of school. And this next book that comes out in May is called Fergus and Zeke for President. It’s when the class is learning about presidents, and Fergus and Zeke are debating what makes a good leader and trying to decide how they should run their cage in the classroom.

And then the second book comes out in August, and that is History Smashers: Christopher Columbus and the Taino People. So, the History Smashers series is graphic nonfiction. So, it’s nonfiction, totally true, but with lots of illustrations and photographs, and parts of the story are told in comics. And these books are aimed at smashing the myths that we sometimes learn about history when we’re small. So, we’ve done books about the Pilgrims and women’s right to vote and Pearl Harbor and, the Titanic, the American Revolution. And the next book in the series is called History Smashers: Christopher Columbus and the Taino People, which is one that educators and librarians have been asking for ever since the series began.

I waited a bit to do it because I didn’t want to write this one without a Taino co-author, without a Taino voice. And so I was incredibly grateful that Dr. Jose Barreiro, who worked with the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian, he’s a Taino elder and historian, agreed to work on this one with me. So, we collaborated on this one, and that will be coming out in August. And also, this summer, I have a funny picture book called The Scariest Kitten in the World.

Bianca Schulze: Oh, my gosh. I mean, I hope you get yourself some free time amongst all these books. That’s incredible. Grace, what about you?

Grace Lin: I have one book coming out in September that I’m super proud of and super excited about. It’s called Chinese Menu, and it’s the myths, legends, and histories behind your favorite Chinese food. So, if you’ve ever eaten at a Chinese restaurant, you might have noticed, like, dumplings are in the shape of an ear. And the reason why they’re in the shape of an ear is that there was an ancient Chinese doctor who invented dumplings, and he invented it as a cure for frostbitten ears. So, there’s all these different legends and histories like that. Like, for example, chow mein. The legend of chow mein is that it was invented because there were four dragons who were competing and kept making the town flood. So, things like that. It’s really exciting for me because it kind of shows the richness behind American Chinese food.

I tell the story that in 2004, I did a book called Fortune Cookie Fortunes, and in that book that was a picture book; I found out that fortune cookies were actually invented in the United States, and it’s a completely American invention. And when I told people that back then, they would say things like, oh, so fortune cookies aren’t even really Chinese. And they would say that with such a tone of derision and kind of disgust that it kind of triggered me because I’m an American-born Asian who has had a lot of identity issues. So, I could kind of feel like they could say the same thing about me, like, oh, you’re not really Chinese.

And I was like; we should give this American Chinese food a little bit more respect. There’s nothing wrong with it being American Chinese. So that’s what I hope this book does for this cuisine and the American Chinese culture in general. So, it’s not a picture book. It’s like an anthology of, like, 40 stories. 40-plus stories. And, as I said, I’m really, really excited about it. To launch Once Upon a Book, Kate and I offered a free school visit through the Carl Museum for those who preordered, and that went so well. I’m doing the same thing with Chinese menus, so anybody who preorders through the Eric Carl Museum of Picture Book Art will qualify for a free virtual school visit. So, I hope people go and look it up.

Bianca Schulze: That is so neat. And now I feel like I need to go to my nearest Chinese American restaurant and get myself some dumplings. Although when I think about the frostbitten ears, I’m like— this sounds incredible. Well, if there is anything else that either of you feels like you want to share about Once Upon a Book or even about yourselves before we go, I would love that.

Kate Messner: Gosh, I think you pretty much hit all the high notes.

Grace Lin: Yeah, just thank you for having us. And thank you to all the readers who read our books. I really appreciate it. And thank you to all the educators who share our books.

Bianca Schulze: Yeah. Wonderful. It was such a pleasure having both of you on the show. And so, I just want to thank you both, not just for being here today but for all of the incredible, important books that you put out into the world that help us to grow readers. But not just growing readers. You’re helping us grow really thoughtful and inspired human beings. And I don’t think there’s anything more special. So, thank you.

Kate Messner: Thank you.

Grace Lin: Thank you.

About the Book

Once Upon a Book: Book Cover

Written by Grace Lin and Kate Messner

Illustrated by Grace Lin

Ages 4+ | 40 Pages

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers | ISBN-13: 978-0316541077

Publisher’s Book Summary: From Caldecott and Newbery Honoree Grace Lin and bestselling author Kate Messner comes a modern folktale about the joy of reading.

Once upon a time, there was a girl. She went to a place alive with colors, where even the morning dew was warm. 

Alice loves to imagine herself in the magical pages of her favorite book. So when it flaps its pages and invites her in, she is swept away to a world of wonder and adventure, riding camels in the desert, swimming under the sea with colorful fish, floating in outer space, and more! But when her imaginative journey comes to an end, she yearns for the place she loves best of all.

Paired with vibrant illustrations, this lyrical, expressive story invites the reader to savor each page and indulge in the power of imagination.

Buy the Book

Show Notes

Grace Lin invites you to visit her at www.gracelin.com.

Kate Messner invites you to visit her at ⁠www.katemessner.com⁠.

Discussion Topics:

  • The things that motivate Grace Lin and Kate Messner to write books for children.
  • School visits and fitting in time to write.
  • Thoughts on growing up readers and the importance of story in our lives.
  • Beverly Cleary and the Ramona books.
  • How a poster led to the creation of Once Upon a Book.
  • When to ask for help and the artistic process of collaboration.
  • Creating and dissecting the stunning artwork of Once Upon a Book.
  • Highlights from Once Upon a Book and the impact they hope it has on readers.

Thank you for listening to the Growing Readers Podcast episode: Grace Lin and Kate Messner Discuss Once Upon a Book. For the latest episodes from The Growing Readers Podcast, Follow Now on Spotify. For similar books and articles, you can check out all of our content tagged with

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Rizwan Ahmed
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