Author of children’s books Minh Le was an extremely shy child who loved to read. On family outings to the public library, he and his sisters would check stacks of books taller than them. Although storybooks could be found throughout their house, bedtime meant a different kind of storytime.
“My parents would often put the books aside and tell us their own stories: stories about life in Vietnam or the stories they grew up with when they were kids. It wasn’t until I grew up that I realized they were becoming their own storytellers because the stories they wanted to tell weren’t available in libraries 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 from which to Choose.”
He accomplished this through a number of award-winning picture books, including “Drawn Together”, “Lift”, and “Let Me Finish!” while writing about picture books on her blog, “Bottom of the Shelf Books”, and his work on the board We need miscellaneous books, a non-profit organization 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 p.m. today with the Caldecott Medal Winner Dan Santat to discuss their latest collaboration, “The Blur,” about how quickly childhood can pass.
Lê, 42, lives in La Mesa with his wife, Aimee, and their sons, Jacob and Ezra. He took the time to talk about his storytelling, how his day-to-day work as a national early childhood policy analyst informs the writing of children’s books, and how writing has helped him to s ‘accept.
Q: How has your work on education policy affected your approach to storytelling?
A: My political 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 inner life – by giving kids books that hopefully spark something in their imaginations, something to see the world in a more magical way.
Keeping one 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 although they are unable 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 on 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 sort of difference do you think that kind of representation makes in children’s books?
A: When I was a kid, there weren’t many books that accurately described the experience of being an Asian American. I generally describe the Asian portrayal of my childhood as either “sidekicks or stereotypes.” So it means a lot to me to help create books that attempt to dive into some of the nuances and realities of being Asian American.
I think it’s extremely important that we have stories that explore Asian characters and cultures, especially with the recent uptick in anti-Asian violence that has dominated the headlines. This type of violence is rooted in a basic inability or unwillingness to see others as fully human. And inasmuch as books give us the opportunity to explore and celebrate the fullness of our humanity for ourselves and for others, hopefully we can push back against some of these dangerous trends even a little.
Q: “The Blur” is about a young girl who is able to go through life on an almost superhero level. As adults, we tend to be continually amazed at how quickly childhood comes and goes, marveling at how quickly the little ones in our lives aren’t so little anymore. What prompted 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 really feel like we’re in the middle of our own blur right now. Our children are 10 and 7 and growing so fast. I still remember when our eldest was a newborn, parents of older children would tell us, “It goes by so quickly. They will all be grown in the blink of an eye. When you’re deep in those early days of parenthood, it’s hard to imagine what it means because you’re just trying to get through the day. Now that we’re a bit removed from the whirlwind of those early days, we’re feeling that nostalgia a lot in real time. At least two or three times a week, my wife and I turn to each other and say, “It’s ‘The Blur'” as we watch our children grow up before our eyes.
I like books with multiple layers of meaning, so I hope “The Blur” has something for readers of all ages. The younger ones see themselves as a little superhero called “The Blur”, traveling the world like a little dynamo. For adults, there’s the “fuzziness” of those early days of caring for a child when life is so hectic that you do your best to keep up. Then there is “the blur” because it refers to the passage of time, that feeling we all have when the days seem to pass a little too quickly.
What I love about La Mesa…
When we moved here, it was very important to our family to live in a walkable, family-friendly community, so we always had our eyes on La Mesa. Being steps away from La Mesa Village is wonderful. We like to stroll for a coffee at Sheldon’s gas station or a scone in Public Square, snoop around Maxwell’s house of books, and spend our Friday nights at the Farmer’s Market or the BO-beautiful kitchen + garden for a date. you in love. It’s everything we hoped 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 have really marked me since my childhood. The first is “Harold and the Purple Crayon” by Crockett Johnson, which is a perfect picture book that’s 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 being super fun read aloud, also breaks the fourth wall in a way that really changed the way I see the books. The third one that really stuck with me was Vera B. Williams’ “A Chair for My Mother” because it was such a wonderful story about the power of family and community.
Looking back now, these three books really embody the themes that emerge in the picture books I’ve written: the power of books and creativity, and the importance of family and community.
Q: What has your work writing children’s books taught you about yourself?
A: One thing writing has taught me is to accept and embrace my own life experience. Growing up, I often felt stuck 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 setting. I always compared my experience to what I imagined to be really “American” or really “Vietnamese” and in doing so, I always felt inadequate.
Writing has helped me realize that all of our experiences are “real” and that putting my own stories on the page is a way to claim my own space. It took way too long, but it was very powerful to finally realize that while my experience as a Vietnamese American may be different from others, it is no less valid.
Q: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
A: Celebrate every step. Editing can be a tough business, and it can move very slowly at times, so it’s important to celebrate stops along the way, which is tricky because I tend to reflexively minimize milestones when they come up . But I made a concerted effort to improve myself.
Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?
A: I have a hidden superpower: I’m really good at swaddling babies. When our first child was born, after first swaddling him in the hospital blanket, the nurse called other staff and asked me to do it again so they could watch. It’s actually a secret talent that I wish I had more opportunities to use, but our kids are all grown up now, so if you ever see me walking around San Diego and you need your baby wrapped up like a burrito, don’t be afraid to ask!
Q: Please describe your ideal weekend in San Diego.
A: A perfect weekend for me would start with the ocean, either taking our dog, Honey, to a dog beach or surfing (I’m a beginner and not very good, but I like getting beat up by the waves). Then, of course, we’ll go to one of San Diego’s many independent bookstores, followed by a hike through Mission Trails, maybe having dinner at Liberty Station, then back to the beach to catch the sunset with a good cold beer and/or ice cream.