Thursday April 19, 2018
Is it your hope to someday be an artist? Maybe you tell yourself that’s unrealistic, so instead of sharing your work with others you hide in the basement with your half-finished creations and dismiss your life-long vision.
Here’s a story about an artist that will send you running back to the basement to rescue your dream. That artist is South Burlington resident Jason Chin, author and illustrator of nine picture books. His latest, “Grand Canyon,” published in 2017 by Roaring Book Press, recently received two 2018 American Library Association awards: a Caldecott Honor and a Sibert Informational Book Honor. While he is overjoyed to receive such great recognition, he understands his success has much to do with determination, a determination that goes back to his childhood.
Chin enjoyed drawing as a child and admired the artwork of Trina Schart Hyman, a celebrated illustrator in his hometown of Lyme, New Hampshire. She visited his school every year to talk about her projects. Listening to her, Chin began to realize that he too could be an illustrator. Years later, in high school, he finally found the courage to ask Hyman to help him with an art project. At the time, Chin considered this a “bold act.” But she was glad to meet with him. When he got to know her, he learned that she had helped other artists too.
That connection affirmed his creative vision and Chin enrolled in Syracuse University’s School of Art. After graduating, he learned that some of his college friends were moving to New York City, and after some consideration, he decided to join them, “You’re doing it, I guess I’ll do it.” With all the galleries and publishing houses, Chin knew the city was the right place for a bourgeoning artist. And his connection with Hyman opened a whole new landscape for him. She helped him write introductory letters to editors she knew in the city and encouraged him to call them. His willingness to pick up the phone, and pushing himself to make those calls, might have been challenging, but he was rewarded with meetings with editors.
Meanwhile, he continued painting his life vision. He designed postcards and sent them to magazines and publishers throughout the city. It didn’t take long for him to find work with magazines, and he recognizes how fortunate he was, even if the jobs were entry level and he didn’t feel as if he was producing great illustrations. “There’s a learning curve,” he acknowledges.
Through his connection with Hyman, he met an artist in the city who told Chin about Books of Wonder, a premier spot for bibliophiles, authors, and artists of all kinds. When Chin happened to be walking by the shop one day, he thought, “Why not, I’ll pop in.” He asked an employee if they were hiring. The owner called Chin the next day and hired him.
Later, he illustrated and wrote a “dummy” of his first picture book, “Redwoods,” about a young boy whose subway trip is transformed when he finds himself captivated by a book about redwood forests. The inspiration for the story came to Chin while he was reading an article in “The New Yorker” about redwoods. He showed the “dummy” to an artist friend he had worked with at Books of Wonder and asked what he thought. His friend said, “Do you mind if I show it to my editor?” Chin agreed, of course. And the editor ultimately agreed to publish it. It was “Redwoods,” Chin says, that “made it possible to be a professional author.” Along with his other books, “Redwoods” became a must-have Common Core tool for teachers, librarians, and young children.
While Chin admits serendipity factored into his success, and perhaps a brushstroke of luck, he believes much of that luck was self-made - by engaging with other artists.
Chin’s wife, Deirdre Gill, also an author and illustrator, came to success the way most artists do, by having to deal with rejections. After many tries, over a period of a year, her first picture book fantasy, “Outside,” found an editor it resonated with. The story, about how a child’s world evolves through imagination and persistence, received praised reviews by favored magazines such as “Kirkus” and “Publisher’s Weekly.” In 2017, Houghton Mifflin published her second book, “Trains Don’t Sleep,” described as a “fast-paced rhyming ode to the locomotive.”
Rejections aside, artists often contend with self-judgment. For Chin, he remembers being focused more on illustrations in his earlier books because he felt his words “were never good.” But the awe he experienced when reading about the redwoods in “The New Yorker” moved him to make the transition to story writing, specifically about nature and science. “Without the story, you don’t have wonder,” he believes. Though he had no credentials as a writer or scientist, he worried others would think of him as an “illustrator posing as a writer.” Former Frederick Tuttle Middle School Assistant Principal Paul Suk-Hyun Yoon applauds Chin for approaching his topics with “the eye of a scientist.”
Yoon added, “Jason’s artwork magically captures the natural world in ways that are both fresh and familiar to readers both young and older alike. Younger readers experience the wonders of our natural world through his books, sometimes for the first time. For educators, Jason’s books are exceptional because they blend beautiful artwork, rich, deep facts and information, and a compelling story to help keep readers, of all ages, engaged throughout.”
Chin eventually wrote through the doubt and learned what it takes to craft engaging stories. When writing “Grand Canyon,” he says he didn’t “write out of fear.” Since winning the awards, Chin worries less about his writing skills, and now calls himself a “nonfiction author illustrator.”
Chin was particularly interested in writing Grand Canyon because of past environmental influences on the canyon’s rock strata. This planetary interconnection, what he calls “big history,” is a perspective he brings to all his books and hopes kids will understand is what binds all humanity. The key, Chin emphasizes, “Is to get kids to say, ‘“Whoa,’ then turn the page and keep reading.” And the key to being an artist, he says, is to “immerse yourself” in it. So, if you love art, come out of the basement, and expand your connections. As Chin encourages, “Make your own luck.”
Chin’s next picture book, “Pie is for Sharing,” a poem about pluralism written by Stephanie Parsley Ledyard, will be available this May.
SOURCE: Melissa Cronin, Contributor