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Grace Lin and Kate Messner on their new children's book 'Once Upon a Book'


Like many of us during this gloomy time of the year, Alice is sick of the cold and heavy winter clothing. So the little girl turns to a book that helps her escape to warmer, tropical worlds. That's the premise of Grace Lin and Kate Messner's new children's book, "Once Upon A Book." It's a look into the imagination of a little girl who discovers the joy of reading and the meaning of home. Co-authors Grace Lin and Kate Messner join me now. Welcome to the show.

GRACE LIN: Thanks for having us.

KATE MESSNER: Thank you.

RASCOE: So first, Kate, like, I understand that there is an interesting story behind your collaboration with Grace. Like, there was a poster that she created, and that brought you guys together?

MESSNER: It did. So Grace was asked to create a poster for Children's Book Week in 2019. And she had created this beautiful piece of art showing a little girl walking along, reading a book. And behind her on, like, the wallpaper is this beautiful, lush tropical forest scene with birds that seem as if they might even be reading over her shoulder. And so Grace had posted this beautiful painting in a writer's group that we're both part of and said, hey, I love this painting. I would love to make a whole book about it. Does anybody have an idea? Does anybody want to collaborate? And so I had seen that painting and stopped immediately when I was scrolling through. And I thought, oh, that sounds like fun. So I set aside the book that I was working on at the time and took about 10 minutes in my writer's notebook to come up with the very beginning of a story that I posted. And Grace came back and said, and then? Keep going. And so this week, it came out, and we're so excited that it's a book now.

RASCOE: Well, you know, it's a beautiful book. I - you know, I got my three kids, and I read it to them. One thing that really grabbed them was Alice's dress. It changes colors and patterns based on whatever environment she's in. So, like, when she's in the desert, her dress looks like sand. So every page, my kids would be like, oh, look at her dress. So...


RASCOE: ...What story, Grace, were you trying to tell with the dress?

LIN: That was completely done on purpose. So if you notice, before Alice goes into the book, she actually changes from her sweater into this summery dress. And this summery dress is made up of words. But then when she finally goes into the book, the words disappear. And that's because she has actually become part of the book. It's kind of a visual metaphor of getting lost in a book or becoming a part of a book when you read it. So that's why, when she's actually inside the book, her dress becomes a part of the environment around her.

RASCOE: Even as Alice travels to all these different places, she ends up going back to her home, the place that she was trying to escape because every time she went somewhere, there was something wrong. There was something that wasn't quite what she wanted. I mean, what was the thing that she realizes about home in this book?

MESSNER: You know, it's interesting. Grace and I have been talking a lot while we were on book tour this week about the driving forces behind our writing. And for me, that driving force has always been curiosity. I write a lot of books about nature and history, and I do a lot of nonfiction. And for Grace, she mentioned that writing - her goal is to help kids find a sense of security and home. And we realized that, almost unintentionally, we had created a book that captures both of those mission statements, if you will, because stories do take us away. They transport us. I love how this story captures that sense of exploration and also comes right around to appreciating home.

RASCOE: And, Grace, was it important to you to have the lead character of this story be of Asian descent?

LIN: Yes. Alice is actually very much based on my own daughter. But you can see from all of my work, I almost always feature Asian or Asian American characters. And that's really because that's what I really wished when I was younger to see. And so all the books I create are kind of a wish fulfillment. And this is a very literal wish fulfillment. I wished to see myself or somebody that looked like me in a book and hear a child that looks like me actually goes into a book and sees herself.

RASCOE: What I really love about this book is that this is, ultimately, a book about loving to read books. Is that what you both want readers, you know, young and old, to take away from your story?

MESSNER: I would say so. I mean, to me, this book is a valentine for readers, right? It's that gift of being swept away in a story and actually entering that story, which I think is something that, you know, young readers always dream about. I remember when I was growing up, I just - you know, I would read the books that I loved, and I would wish so hard that I could just step right inside. This is really a visual metaphor - the idea that we get lost in stories and what they do for us.

LIN: Yes, it's a way to show them that a book is such a wonderful way to explore other places and other lives and to live another life in the book. But it's a safe place because you can always - when you're done, you close the book and return home. And that's just what this book does, too.

RASCOE: Grace Lin and Kate Messner are the authors of the new children's book "Once Upon A Book." Thank you so much for joining us.

MESSNER: Thank you.

LIN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
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