Minh Le is the author of our feature book this month Drawn Together, an amazing look at the barriers that many children (and adults too!) face with relatives from different cultures who speak a different language. Minh drew on his own experience with his grandparents who were from Vietnam, where his parents immigrated from. Minh was born in the US and grew up in Connecticut. If anyone knows about picture books, it’s Minh. Not only has he written about children’s books for many publications, he writes his own blog, Bottom Shelf Books. Currently, he is serving as a judge for the 2018 Boston Globe-Horn Book awards. Always a picture book fan, it was his wife who persuaded him to write a book.
MARMALADE BOOKS (MB): In your first book Let Me Finish, you worked closely with illustrator Isabel Roxas, which is not usually the norm. Your new book Drawn Together, has few words and is such a fabulous and important collaboration with illustrator Dan Santat. How did it come about that Dan would be the illustrator? You didn’t work directly with Dan this time but did you give him notes about how you saw the illustrations for the story?
MINH LE (ML): Thank you for the kind words, I really feel like I hit the illustrator jackpot with my first two books!
For Drawn Together, it was our amazing editor Rotem Moscovich who made the connection. Fresh off his Caldecott win, she mentioned to Dan that she thought the two of us might be a good fit for a book... so I got this email from my agent that night saying that we have an opportunity to work with Dan and I needed to send him 2-3 book ideas within 2 days. Dan’s life was about to be completely swept away by the Caldecott madness and we had to strike while the window was still open.
No pressure. ;-)
I had just come back from the hospital with my second son, so was up at 3am rocking my newborn to sleep and trying to figure out “How do you write a story for someone who just won THE BIGGEST AWARD IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE??” Fortunately, this is the story that came from that.
As for notes, most of this story takes place in the pictures so I did have to rely on illustration notes. But I always try to keep a light touch and only include the info necessary for Dan to know what was going on in the story/narrative. The details of how that all visually came together and how the scenes came to life, I wanted to leave in Dan’s talented hands.
MB: I’ve read that Drawn Together was an emotional journey for both you and Dan. You both describe connecting with your roots and your grandparents. Sadly you lost your own grandfather just before the book was published. Did you feel that writing this book helped you to deal with the passing of your grandfather?
ML: It definitely has, thank you for asking. It’s been a kind of blessing because in the year since he passed, I have spent so much time out there sharing this story about our relationship. Sharing his spirit and memory with people (and having them in turn share their own stories with me) has been a pleasant surprise that has made him feel extremely present in my daily life.
And as someone who loves and believes fully in the power of books, I can’t think of a better way to honor his memory than by giving him a place on the shelf.
MB: In addition to writing two wonderful books, you are a children’s book reviewer, blogger, write articles for publications like The New York Times and Huffington Post, are a key-note speaker, presenter, a father of two boys and your day job is as an early childhood policy writer. How on earth do you manage it all?!
ML: Ha, that answer depends on the day. ;-) Life is very full right now and every now and then it dips over capacity... but it is full with wonderful things so I can’t complain. My wife and I both put our family first, but we believe that part of being good parents is showing our kids that it is important to devote time and energy to the things that you believe in. So when they see my wife (who does amazing work in international education & advocacy) working late into the night or see me visiting schools and squeezing in writing wherever I can, we’re hoping to set a positive example for them.
With the world the way it is right now, we want our boys to know that part of being a strong family is being able to engage with the world around us. It’s important to do what we can to add something positive to counteract the negative.
MB: I bet your house is full of children’s books which your sons must love. How many books do you think you have accumulated?
ML: HA, to give you an idea, when people ask me to describe our home I often say: “Imagine a bookstore and a library got into a fight... during a hurricane.” My boys live in this magical world where they get boxes of free books delivered to their door every day. The year is barely halfway done, but we’ve already received well over a thousand books so far.
And while we do have a wonderful collection of books, my wife and I have also identified over a dozen local schools, libraries, and other deserving organizations that can put the books to good use. So once I’m done reviewing, we get the added bonus/joy of donating hundreds upon hundreds of books, getting them into the hands of children and families who truly need them.
MB: Can you tell us a little bit about your job as a childhood policy expert?
ML: Sure! I work for the federal government (starting during the previous administration) on a national program that helps low-income working families pay for child care. I write policies and regulations for the program to help States invest the money in ways that will hopefully serve the most families possible while also ensuring that children are in safe and high-quality settings.
It’s a much different kind of writing, but I like to think that it’s related because both kinds of writing are in service of children and families. (Though of course, writing picture books is much more fun.)
MB: Thank you Minh. Congratulations on this amazing book.
ML: Thank YOU for having me and for sharing our book with your readers!