Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Author Interview: Minh Lê on Drawn Together

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Minh Lê is the author of the upcoming Drawn Together, illustrated by Dan Santat (Hyperion, June 5, 2018). From the promotional copy:

When a young boy visits his grandfather, their lack of a common language leads to confusion, frustration, and silence. 

But as they sit down to draw together, something magical happens - with a shared love of art and storytelling, the two form a bond that goes beyond words.

Minh, I have to admit that I was immediately taken with this story.

In my prior career, I worked with American Indian and Alaska elders, and intergenerational relationships are the foundation of Native Nations and families.

The experience of this boy visiting his grandfather reminded me of many elders who feel they don’t always understand the world their grandchildren or great-grandchildren are experiencing through traditional language loss, increased technology use, etc.

You dedicate the book to your grandparents. Did you all struggle to communicate and connect when you were younger?

Thank you for your kind words and thank you so much for having me on Cynsations, Traci!

Yes, Drawn Together is very much based on my experience with my grandparents, in particular my paternal grandfather.

Vietnamese was actually my first language (there is even home video somewhere to prove it), but I unfortunately let it slip away over the years. This meant that my relationship with my grandparents was very much defined by what we could not say to each other.

Unlike the boy and his grandfather in the book, we unfortunately never managed to fully bridge that language gap before he passed away earlier this year… but in small but profound ways, we came to understand that despite everything we left unsaid, the bond between us was stronger than words. 

Minh at a school visit.
What do you hope a child reader will take away from Drawn Together? 

It takes work to truly see the person right in front of you, even those who we love the most. If our book can help inspire even one reader to discover an unexpected connection with a loved one, then my heart will be completely full.

Another quick but important point: while this book reveals the “world beyond words,” that is not meant to diminish the importance of language. If a reader is able to establish that non-verbal connection like the grandson and grandfather, my hope is that it leads to a rich relationship that also involves language. While I’ll never question the love between us, I’ll always wish that I could have had a deeper conversation with my grandfather in Vietnamese.

Dan Santat’s artwork captivated me from the front cover through the entire book. He brings another fabulous level of storytelling to this picture book with rich color and intricate drawings. Those illustrations in the middle of the book add so much impact to your words. What did you think when you first saw them? 

I’m so glad you were captivated by the artwork too, because oh my goodness: Dan’s artwork left me totally speechless. My approach to writing is to try telling the story in as few words as possible, to basically create space for the illustrator to work their magic.

And with a story about building a “world beyond words” the success of the story absolutely hinged on the artwork. So much of the story happens through the illustrations and Dan took it to a level that absolutely blew my mind.

I am Vietnamese American, but am thrilled that Dan made this story his own by infusing it with his own experience and Thai heritage. You can tell how much of himself he poured into these pages and I will be forever grateful to him for bringing this story to life in such jaw-dropping fashion. (Note: If you haven’t seen this video about his process, you should definitely check it out.)


To what extent were you able or inclined to offer feedback while the art was in production? 

I try my best to keep a light touch on art notes, preferring to let the artist take the story and run with it.

I did have the opportunity to provide some feedback at different points along the way (always filtered through our brilliant editor, Rotem Moscovich), but it was mostly just minor observations sprinkled in with unfiltered gushing over the breathtaking artwork.

Could you tell us about your path to publication? What were the high points and stumbles along the way? What were your best decisions and those you might reconsider if you had to do it all again? 

For me, I’d say the biggest stumbling point was just getting out of my own way.

I’ve always wanted to write a children’s book, but then at the same time would laugh off that dream as “silly” and with a “but why me?” attitude.


Then one day my wife looked at me and said, “I love you… but if you’re not going to take yourself seriously, who will?” That was the wake up call I needed to stop being my own worst enemy. I was never going to get any traction if I couldn’t get past myself.

So if I were to reconsider anything or do something different… I probably wouldn’t have spent 10 years dedicated to self-sabotage before sending out my first book pitch.

That being said, I spent a lot of those 10 years blogging about/reviewing children’s books, so it wasn’t a waste of time. Immersing myself books was an invaluable education and really gave me a chance to see what was already out there and to develop and refine my own taste.

So when I finally did send out the idea for Let Me Finish! illustrated by Isabel Roxas (Hyperion, 2016)), I did so on solid ground that really helped speed things up.

From there, everything fell into place nicely, from landing my fantastic agent Stephen Barbara, getting the super-talented Isabel Roxas to collaborate with, and then of course, having the brilliant Rotem Moscovich at Hyperion acquire it. I couldn’t have asked for my path to unfold any better.

Now to follow it up with a collaboration with Dan Santat is, to put it mildly, a dream come true. So I’m just enjoying every step along the way and can hopefully keep it going!


What craft and career advice do you have for beginning writers? 

When asked for writing advice (particularly picture book writing), I always point to a quote from Wind, Sand, and Stars by Antoine de St. Exupéry (Reynal and Hitchcock, 1939), the author of The Little Prince (Reynal and Hitchcock, 1943).

In the book he talks about building airplanes during the early days of flight and has this beautiful line:
"Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."
I try to keep that quote in mind whenever I’m writing. Not that you have to go full Hemingway and write only in terse prose... but you should make sure that every word on the page serves a purpose.

Weigh yourself down with too many unnecessary words and there's a good chance your story will never take flight.

What did your first book teach you that informed your second?

I think the most valuable thing I learned from making the first book was the importance of trusting the people you work with.

From the illustrator, to the editor, to the art director, and others, there are so many people who go into creating a book. While as an author it’s important to stay true to your vision, it’s just as (if not more) important to loosen your grip on the “ownership” over the idea and allow the book the space to breath and evolve.

The final version of Let Me Finish! was much stronger than what I originally had in mind because of all the different people helping to shape it along the way.

Which is also why I make it a point to always refer to it as “our book” and never “my book.” 

What do you have coming up next? 

I have some other projects with Hyperion, but nothing I can talk about yet (I always say the hardest part of publishing is all the secrets you have to keep).

Something exciting that I can talk about is that I’ll be writing a Green Lantern graphic novel for DC Comics’s new middle grade imprint, DC Zoom.

I’m particularly excited because while Drawn Together is about my grandfather, this graphic novel is inspired in part by my grandmothers. It means the world to me that I get to pay tribute to them through these books and that soon they’ll have a spot on the bookshelf.

Wonderful! I look forward to the Green Lantern novel and hearing about these other new projects when you can share them. 

Cynsational Notes

Minh Lê is the author of Let Me Finish! (an NPR Best Book of 2016), illustrated by Isabel Roxas and the upcoming Drawn Together illustrated by Caldecott medalist Dan Santat, both published by Hyperion.

He is also writing Green Lantern: Legacy, a graphic novel for the new DC Comics middle grade imprint, DC Zoom.

A member of the kidlit consortium The Niblings, Minh has written for a number of national publications, including the New York Times, HuffPost, and the Horn Book.

He is currently serving as a judge for the 2018 Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards.

Outside of spending time with his beautiful wife and sons, his favorite place to be is in the middle of a good book.

Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children's-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac, will be published by Charlesbridge on Sept. 4, 2018. The story features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures.

In fall 2019, her first fiction picture book, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre will be published by Penguin Random House’s new imprint, Kokila.

Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.

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