Grace Lin and Kate Messner have collaborated to tell a modern folktale.
Caldecott and Newbery Honoree Grace Lin and bestselling author Kate Messner released “Once Upon a Book” on Feb. 7, a vibrantly illustrated story following a young girl as she explores the wonders inside of her book.
The idea for the book was developed in 2019, when Lin was asked to create a collaborative poster for the 100th anniversary of Children’s Book Week. She ultimately loved the illustration so much that she almost wanted to set aside her other deadlines to make it into a full book.
“I had so many other projects that I was working on though, and I didn't have the time or the mental bandwidth to think of a story,” Lin said in an interview with The Harvard Crimson. “So I was like, ‘I'll do a Hail Mary!’” The author posted the painting in an online writers’ group, requesting ideas to turn her illustration into a full story.
This Hail Mary was answered by Kate Messner. Messner, taking a quick break from working on her own pressing deadlines, was scrolling on social media when she came across Lin’s post.
“I saw this art and I was absolutely in love with it. The piece just spoke to me,” Messner said. “So I set a timer and I took ten minutes to write in my writer’s notebook.” Those ten minutes set into motion a long collaboration between the authors, as they spent the next several months drafting and redrafting what would then blossom into “Once Upon a Book.”
The result is a story within a story — a modern folktale of different worlds with an overarching narrative that follows protagonist Alice as she navigates her own quest for home within them. Inside these tales is an additional throughline, shown by the white rabbit hiding on every well-illustrated page, reminding older readers of the protagonist’s namesake: “Alice in Wonderland.”
Despite creating such a cohesive story, the pair of authors still noted their distinct personal philosophies when approaching their work.
“My driving force in writing for kids is curiosity,” Messner said. “As a kid, I escaped at the library. There, I could read anything and I could go anywhere. It's all about curiosity and wonder.”
Lin, however, seeks to give her young readers stories that allow them to see their personal identities represented inside her books.
“I want to create books that give kids a sense of home, a sense of welcome, a sense of warmth,” Lin said, recalling her childhood search for protagonists that resembled her as an Asian-American girl. “I escaped into books to try to find a sense of belonging.”
In “Once Upon a Book,” the authors intertwined their missions, melding their values into a nuanced story. Demonstrating both curiosity and home-seeking, protagonist Alice experiences a grand, otherworldly adventure, yet still makes it back to her kitchen table for dinner by the end of the book.
“There’s the curiosity and the escape into fantasies,” Lin said, reflecting on how her mission combined with Messner’s. “But there’s also the message that you’re safe, you’re home. Home is waiting for you and you belong.”
Reflecting on their own personal journey as writers, Messner and Lin each left a piece of parting wisdom for writers and artists.
“Read and read and read. If you want to write children's mysteries, read 100 children's mysteries. If you want to write picture books, read 500 recently published picture books,” Messner said. “There’s no real education like consuming what's out there. You’ll learn a lot about the music of language.”
Lin nodded to Messner’s point, adding her own profound advice.
“Learn to hold humility and audacity in the same hand,” Lin said. “To be a writer, you have to have the audacity to believe that what you are doing is important. But you also have to be able to hold the humility to hear what people are saying about your writing and know that no writer is perfect. To hold those two things in one hand is very, very difficult. But when you do, that's when you become a successful writer.”
With “Once Upon a Book,” Lin and Messner have successfully balanced audacity and humility to tell a beautiful story rife with complexity. By collaborating, the authors have given young readers a book that represents their own deep connection with storytelling.
—Staff writer Stella A. Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com.