Children’s book author Minh Lê was an intensely shy child who loved to read. On family outings to the public library, he and his sisters would check out stacks of books taller than themselves. Although storybooks could be found throughout their home, bedtime meant a different kind of story time.
“My parents would often set aside the books and tell us their own stories: stories about life in Vietnam or the stories they grew up with as children. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized they became their own storytellers because the stories they wanted to tell weren’t available on bookshelves anywhere, ”he says. “Now, in a way, I feel like I’m continuing that work by writing books as part of the effort to ensure that today’s readers have a more diverse selection of books to choose from.”
He’s accomplished this through a number of award-winning picture books, including “Drawn Together,” “Lift,” and “Let Me Finish!” along with writing about picture books on his blog, “Bottom Shelf Books,” and his work on the board of We Need Diverse Books, a nonprofit advocating for changes in the publishing industry that lead to the creation of more books featuring diverse characters. He will be at the La Jolla / Riford Library at 2:30 pm today with Caldecott Medal winner Dan Santat to discuss their latest collaboration, “The Blur,” about how quickly childhood can fly by.
Lê, 42, lives in La Mesa with his wife, Aimee, and their sons, Jacob and Ezra. He took some time to talk about his storytelling, how his day job as a national early childhood policy analyst informs his children’s book writing, and how writing helped him with self-acceptance.
Q: In what ways has your work in education policy affected your approach to storytelling?
A: My policy work is often focused on helping the external conditions that impact a child’s ability to thrive, while my writing work gives me the opportunity to focus on their interior lives – giving children books that, hopefully, spark something in their imaginations, something that allows them to see the world in a more magical way.
Keeping a foot in both worlds, the technical and the creative, gives me a wonderful sense of balance and each side feeds the other.
Q: “Drawn Together” is about a young boy who visits his grandfather, and while they aren’t able to communicate verbally because they don’t speak the same language, they discover an ability to communicate through a shared love of drawing. The story centers both your Vietnamese heritage and Dan’s Thai heritage. Can you talk about writing a story that centers Asian characters and cultures in this way, and what kind of difference do you think this kind of representation makes in children’s books?
A: When I was a kid, there weren’t many books that accurately captured the experience of being an Asian American. I usually describe Asian representation from my childhood as being either “sidekicks or stereotypes.” So, it means a lot to me to help create books that try to dive into some of the nuances and realities of being Asian American.
I think it’s vitally important that we have stories that explore Asian characters and cultures, especially with the recent rise in anti-Asian violence that has been peppering the headlines. That kind of violence is rooted in a fundamental inability or unwillingness to see others as fully human. And to the extent that books give us the opportunity to explore and celebrate the fullness of our humanity for ourselves and for others, hopefully we can push back even a little against some of these dangerous trends.
Q: “The Blur” is about a young girl with the ability to zip through life at an almost superhero level. As adults, we tend to be continually amazed by how quickly childhood comes and goes, marveling at how soon the little ones in our lives are no longer so little. What compelled you to approach this particular point of view for a story and what did you and Dan want to convey?
A: My wife and I very much feel like we’re in the midst of our own blur right now. Our children are 10 and 7 years old, and growing so fast. I still remember when our oldest was a newborn, parents of older kids would tell us, “It goes by so fast. They’ll be all grown up in the blink of an eye. ” When you’re in the thick of those early days of parenthood, it’s hard to imagine what that means because you’re just trying to get through the day. Now that we’re a little bit removed from the whirlwind of those early days, we very much feel that real-time nostalgia. At least two or three times a week, my wife and I will turn to each other and say, “It’s ‘The Blur’” as we watch our kids growing up right before our eyes.
I like books with multiple layers of meaning, so my hope is that “The Blur” has something for readers of all ages. The youngest get to see themselves as a little superhero called “The Blur,” zipping all over the world like a little dynamo. For adults, there’s “the blur” of those early days of caring for a child when life is just so hectic you’re just doing your best to keep up. Then, there’s “the blur” as it refers to the passage of time, that feeling that we’ve all had when the days seem to be passing by just a little too quickly.
What I love about La Mesa …
When we moved here, it was really important for our family to live in a walkable community close to family, so we always had our eyes on La Mesa. To be just a short walk from La Mesa Village is wonderful. We love to stroll down for coffee at Sheldon’s Service Station or a scone at Public Square, poke around Maxwell’s House of Books, and spend our Friday nights at the farmer’s market or BO-beau kitchen + garden for date night. It is everything we were hoping for when we moved here from the East Coast.
Q: What were some of your favorite books (or favorite authors) when you were growing up?
A: There are three books that really stand out to me from my childhood. The first is “Harold and the Purple Crayon” by Crockett Johnson, which is a perfect picture book that is quiet but has a lot to say about the power of creativity. The second is “There’s a Monster at the End of This Book” by Jon Stone, which, in addition to just being a super fun read aloud, breaks down the fourth wall in a way that really changed how I viewed books. The third one that really stuck with me was “A Chair for My Mother” by Vera B. Williams because it was such a wonderful story about the power of family and community.
Looking back at it now, those three books really do embody the themes that emerge in the picture books that I’ve written: the power of books and creativity, plus the importance of family and community.
Q: What has your work writing children’s books taught you about yourself?
A: One thing that writing has taught me is to accept and embrace my own life experience. Growing up, I often felt caught between two worlds: at school I was the Asian kid, at home I was the American kid. So, I grew up feeling like I was never enough in any context. I was always comparing my experience to what I imagined to be truly “American” or truly “Vietnamese” and in doing so I always felt inadequate.
Writing has helped me realize that all of our experiences are “true” and the act of putting my own stories down on the page is a way of claiming my own space. It took way too long, but it was very powerful to finally understand that while my experience as a Vietnamese American may be different than others, it is no less valid.
Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
A: Celebrate every milestone. Publishing can be a rough business, and it can move very slowly at times, so it’s important to celebrate the stops along the way, which is tricky because I tend to reflexively downplay milestones when they come up. But I’ve been making a concerted effort to be better about it.
Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?
A: I have a hidden superpower: I am really good at swaddling babies. When our first child was born, after I first swaddled him in the hospital blanket, the nurse called other staff in and asked me to do it again so they could watch. It’s actually a secret talent that I wish I had more opportunity to use, but our kids are grown now, so if you ever see me walking around San Diego and need your baby wrapped up tight like a burrito, don’t be afraid to ask !
Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.
A: A perfect weekend for me would start out with the ocean, either taking our dog, Honey, to a dog beach or going surfing (I’m just starting out and not very good, but I enjoy getting pummeled by the waves). Then, of course, we’d pop into one of San Diego’s many awesome indie bookstores, followed by a hike through Mission Trails, maybe grabbing dinner at Liberty Station, and then heading back to the beach to catch the sunset with a nice cold beer and / or ice cream.