Writer and illustrator Grace Lin loves to order takeout Chinese food but confesses she’s not a whiz when it comes to chopsticks. Speaking by phone from her home in Northampton, Massachusetts, she laughingly explains: “I can get the food to my mouth, but you’re supposed to hold one like a pencil, and just one chopstick is supposed to move. When I do it, both chopsticks move. It’s definitely not the correct way, but it works.”
Lin’s latest creation, Chinese Menu: The History, Myths, and Legends Behind Your Favorite Food, will make readers’ mouths water regardless of their chopstick skills. It’s a project she has been contemplating since 2004 but wasn’t ready to tackle until recently. Beautifully illustrated by Lin—who has won both the Caldecott and the Newbery—Chinese Menu features 40 or so stories about the legends and history behind popular American Chinese foods—everything from egg rolls and wonton soup to General Tso’s Chicken and fortune cookies.
“In my circles, it seems like people know lo mein just as well as a hot dog, you know? Working on this book has really shifted my idea of what American food is.”
“I spent most of my childhood trying to pretend that I wasn’t Asian,” Lin says, reminiscing about growing up in Utica, New York, where few Asian families lived at the time. “The two tenuous connections I had to my heritage were reading Chinese folktales and legends that my mom snuck me and the food that we ate every day. So those were the two ways that my culture was passed on to me as a child. I guess that’s why I use them so often in my books, because they were the only roots that I felt I had. I’ve been strengthening them over time.”
Even though her very first books—The Ugly Vegetables (1999) and Dim Sum for Everyone (2001)—were about Chinese food, she says, “I think for years I almost felt like I was faking it. That I look Asian on the outside, but didn’t really feel Asian on the inside. It’s really through doing all these books that I finally feel like I can claim that part of my identity.”
Her first editor advised her to write a book featuring a white character to avoid being pigeonholed as a “multicultural author and illustrator.” She didn’t take his advice. “Back then, that was a burden,” she muses. “Now I take it as a badge of honor.” Throughout a career that has spanned over two decades, Lin has created board books, picture books, early readers and children’s novels featuring Asian and Asian American characters. Several novels (Year of the Dog, Year of the Rat and Dumpling Days) are based on her own life as the child of parents who grew up in Taiwan while it was still called the Nationalist Republic of China.
Lin has come a long way since those early days of self-doubt. In 2022, the American Library Association awarded her the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. As for Chinese Menu, she says, “This book is not me claiming that part of my identity. This book is not to prove to myself or to others that I’m Asian enough or American enough. This book is a celebration to show the world how wonderful that identity is. It’s something with a lot of richness, joy and wonder, and that’s enjoyable for everyone, because it’s food.”
Over the years, Lin had filed away numerous Chinese restaurant menus that she found interesting, and she would occasionally discuss the project as a possibility with her current editor (who happens to be a best friend she met in fifth grade). During COVID-19 lockdowns, incidents of anti-Asian prejudice and violence increased, and Lin felt compelled to tackle this book. “It seemed like an opportune time to celebrate being Asian American,” she says. She dove into her boxes of material and hired a research assistant, Izabelle Brande from the Department of East Asian Languages and Culture at Smith College. Lin doesn’t read Chinese, but Brande provided her with translations of many secondary sources. “I had a lot of stories via word of mouth from my parents and relatives,” Lin recalls. “I would know one version of a story, and [Brande] was really amazing because she would tell me that there are actually three versions.”
“I absolutely adore myths, legends and folk tales, as you can tell from all of my work,” she continues. “But one of the things that I really wanted to do with this book was to show how these stories are still part of our culture today. What’s more tangible and easier to understand than the food that we eat?”
“This book is not to prove to myself or to others that I’m Asian enough or American enough. This book is a celebration to show the world how wonderful that identity is. It’s something with a lot of richness, joy and wonder, and that’s enjoyable for everyone, because it’s food.”
Lin not only wrote Chinese Menu, but also illustrated it, using her tween daughter and her daughter’s friend as models. Being both an illustrator and writer allows Lin to make adjustments in both pictures and prose as she goes—for instance, shortening text that she realizes is shown in the art—even up until the last minute. Chinese Menu is unusual because it’s the first time Lin has illustrated digitally. For the cover and the present-day food pictures, she painted with gouache by hand—her usual way—but to illustrate the traditional stories, she scanned initial drawings and colored them digitally in a limited color palette.
“I wanted to separate the folktales from present-day life,” she says. Lin is happy with the results, but it took a toll physically—she moved around less at the computer and became sore from being in the same position for hours. Nonetheless, she says, “I often dream about doing a graphic novel, and I realize now that the only way I would ever be able to do that is to embrace digital media.”
Lin encountered a few surprises as she worked. First, she hoped to find a good story about soy sauce but found nothing—“just stuff about trying to make food salty without using so much salt. It was all really boring.” One discovery that delighted her, however, was the realization of how important American Chinese food is to American culture: “It’s become integrated into our lives just as much as hamburgers and pizza. In my circles, it seems like people know lo mein just as well as a hot dog, you know? Working on this book has really shifted my idea of what American food is.”
Her book includes just one recipe, for her mother’s scallion pancakes. “It’s called Chinese Menu because it’s about food that you order at a restaurant,” Lin says with a laugh. “I don’t mind cooking, but I would rather read a book!”