As a child, author Minh Lê had a deep and loving relationship with his grandparents, but he also remembers a lot of "awkward silence."
"There were those moments where we just didn't know what to say to each other," he says.
Lê was born in the U.S. and grew up in Connecticut. His grandparents were from Vietnam. His new picture book — a collaboration with Caldecott Medalist Dan Santat — explores how a young boy and his Thai grandfather learn to bridge barriers of language, culture and age.
"I wrote it based on my relationship with my grandfather," Lê explains. Santat, whose family came from Thailand, "had a personal connection with his grandmother that was a very similar."
Drawn Together uses relatively few words to tell a story about struggling to find them. After an evening of uncomfortable silence, the boy and his grandfather finally figure out how to communicate: "It's only when they discover a mutual love of art that they're able to connect ..." Lê says. "And then their relationship kind of takes off from there."
On his relationship with his own grandparents
My parents came over right before the war got really bad in Vietnam and my grandparents came shortly thereafter. ... My grandfather is also naturally a man of few words. I keep telling people — there's no question in my mind that he and I knew how much we meant to each other, but we weren't quite able — I wasn't quite able — to convey that to him through words. ... Our relationship was defined by what we couldn't say.
On the way the boy and his grandfather learn to communicate with one another
The boy draws a picture of himself as a wizard — like one of the heroes of his imagination — and the grandfather sees that and has this epiphany and runs to his room and grabs his own art supplies and draws a picture of himself as one of the heroes from his childhood. ... It's almost like peeling back the layers of their identities and they see each other for the first time.
On a moment that helped him feel connected to his grandfather
While we didn't have that kind of like epiphany moment that comes in the book, I remember going to my grandfather's house for a New Year's celebration and seeing these beautiful signs on the wall in calligraphy. And I asked my parents, "So who made them? Where did they get those?" And they said, "Oh your grandfather painted those." And from there [I] discovered that he, as a young man, wanted to be an artist.
On different kinds of distance between generations
I have grandparents in Vietnam as well. Sometimes it's a literal, physical distance — like you are halfway across the globe. Sometimes it's a more metaphorical distance — just not being able to connect. You start to question the depth of your relationship if you can't speak in the most basic ways. ... Especially as a kid, it's tricky to deal with or to wrap your mind around.
On whether he shared the book with his grandfather
I actually didn't talk to him about the book ... it was so personal, I didn't know how to talk to him about this. So the hope was to be able to hand this book to him and kind of share that moment. ... Unfortunately he passed away this past year before the book came out. ... When he was admitted to hospital, I had just gotten sketches of the book for the first time and so ... I made this dummy copy of the book. I rushed it up to him, but unfortunately he never recovered in time for me to be able to truly share the experience of the book with him. But at the same time, it's been really gratifying, because for this past year, even though he's no longer here, working on this book has made him feel very much present in our daily lives.
On how the book is resonating with people of all backgrounds
People have been coming up, telling me about [how] they've had very similar upbringings, they also come from immigrant families, and it resonates with them. But then other people say, "I spoke English with my grandparents but we just couldn't connect for the longest time until we figured out some other way to bridge that gap." So I feel like it's been very gratifying to have a story that's very personal and very specific resonate ... across cultural experience.
On his takeaway from the book
It's not always easy to connect with people — even the people that are most important in your lives. So if there's any takeaway for me from making this book, and from sharing this book, it's that — while it takes effort, that effort is hopefully worth it — and you better get on it before it's too late.
Justine Kenin and Melissa Gray produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The relationship between grandparents and their grandchildren can be a special one. But it can also be challenging, especially when it spans cultures and sometimes language.
ANOT TANTA SUNTHORN: (Speaking Thai).
THOMAS R GROVES: (Reading) So what's new, Grandpa?
CORNISH: A new picture book called "Drawn Together" colorfully bridges the divide between a young boy and his Thai grandfather. It's written by Minh Le, and he joins us now in the studio. Welcome to the program.
MINH LE: Thank you for having me.
CORNISH: So the illustrations to this book are done by Dan Santat, and I want to bring it up because he is Thai. You are not, right?
LE: That's correct.
CORNISH: What's the connection here?
LE: So I'm actually Vietnamese-American, and I wrote the manuscript from that perspective. But with a picture book, you want the illustrator to kind of, like, take it on and make it their own. I wrote it based on my relationship with my grandfather, but he had a personal connection with his grandmother that was very similar.
CORNISH: Walk us through the basic plot of the book. What happens?
LE: OK. So in this story, a boy goes to visit his grandfather. And they have dinner. They watch a movie. And they - but they struggle to connect because of a language barrier. So it's only when they discover a mutual love of art that they're able to connect and find that common ground. And then the relationship kind of takes off from there.
CORNISH: Tell us a little bit about your grandparents, when they came to the U.S. And how old were you when you first kind of had a real relationship with them?
LE: My parents came over right before the war got really bad in Vietnam, and my grandparents came shortly thereafter. So we grew up in Connecticut. And my grandfather was also naturally a man of few words. I keep telling people there's no question in my mind that he and I knew how much we meant to each other. But we weren't quite able - I wasn't quite able to, like, convey that to him through words. That distance that you see at the beginning of the book was very much something that I grappled with throughout my time.
CORNISH: And that distance is embodied by silence, right? We have panel on panel of this little boy kind of going about his day, unpacking his backpack and the grandfather in the background, and them looking at each other kind of furtively, I would say. (Laughter) Is that a good description?
LE: Yeah, no. Dan did an amazing job, since there are very few words, of capturing all those little moments in the facial expressions or, like, a slump of the shoulders and just kind of really capturing the depth of emotion without using words, which is - for a book about the power of relationships and a world beyond words, that really comes through in the illustrations I think beautifully.
CORNISH: I want to zero in on another moment where they connect. And I was wondering if you could turn to the page where the grandfather goes to his own sketchbook.
LE: So up to this point, there hasn't been any narration. That was kind of done on purpose to kind of, like, build up that tension and that awkward silence. And then once the grandfather comes back with the sketchbook and they kind of discover that connection, the narration kicks in. And it says, right when I gave up on talking...
THOMAS: (Reading) Right when I gave up on talking, my grandfather surprised me by revealing a world beyond words. And in a flash, we see each other for the first time.
LE: So in the book, the boy draws a picture of himself as a wizard, like, one of the heroes of his imagination. And the grandfather sees that and has this, like, epiphany. He runs to his room and grabs his own art supplies and draws a picture of himself as one of the heroes from his childhood. And for me, when you turn that page, it's almost like peeling back the layers of their identities. And they see each other for the first time.
CORNISH: And the adventure they draw involves a dragon and - right? - like, and fights.
LE: Yeah, I wanted to have a book that was both, like, emotionally resonant but also exciting for kids and, like, that had that, like, dynamic element. So there is a dragon that appears, and he's very ferocious. So for me, like, to see the grandfather as, oh, he has these, like, amazing imagination, like, hopes and dreams...
CORNISH: Right. He imagines himself as this warrior, basically - right? - with this huge sword. And in the - on the other page, you've got the little boy, and he's got his magic wand and his cape.
LE: Yeah. So to have that connection and to kind of find those similarities on that page I thought was important to the story.
CORNISH: Yeah. I mean, it's so interesting when you have - when you're an immigrant. I am, too. My grandparents, who are no longer with us, were back on the island. And, yeah, you - you're just this American kid, and you don't always really know who they are.
LE: Right. And I think sometimes, like - because I have grandparents in Vietnam as well. And it's like sometimes, it's a literal physical distance. Like, here you are halfway across the globe. Sometimes it's a more metaphorical distance of, like, just, like, not being able to connect. You start to question the depth of your relationship if you can't speak in the most basic ways, right?
What's been great, if you don't mind me saying, is other people say I spoke English with my grandparents, but we just couldn't connect for the longest time until we figured out some other way to bridge that gap. So I feel like it's been very gratifying to have a story that's very personal and very specific resonate, kind of like a cross-cultural experience and have those universal themes that kind of are - resonate with people.
CORNISH: Well, Minh Le, thank you so much. It was a beautiful story.
LE: Oh, thank you. Thank you so much for having me.
CORNISH: Minh Le - his new picture book is called "Drawn Together." It's illustrated by Dan Santat. Earlier, we heard two readers. Anot Tanta Sunthorn (ph) was reading the part of the grandfather and Thomas R. Groves (ph) read the part of the grandson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.