Author/Illustrator Interview: Ed Young on Beyond The Great Mountains

Beyond The Great Mountains: A Visual Poem About China by Ed Young (Chronicle, 2005). From the catalog copy: “Ed Young’s spare prose, as lovely as a rice-paper painting, describes in measured detail the beautiful and mystical land that the author so clearly loves. The unique format and gorgeous paper-collage illustrations, highlighted with Chinese characters, combine to convey the many facets of China to form a poetic picture of the land’s grace, depth, and majesty.”

Publisher bio: “Ed Young was born in Tientsin, China, grew up in Shanghai, and later moved to Hong Kong and finally to the United States, where he lives today with his wife and two young daughters. He has illustrated more than eighty children’s books (some of which he has also written), and his work has received many awards, including the 1990 Caldecott Medal and two Caldecott Honors.”

What was your initial inspiration for creating this book?

This book is a spin-off from a workshop on Chinese calligraphy that I did in Boulder, Colorado, in 1983. I composed a poem made up of Chinese symbols on natural elements. The poem was written with sumi brush on a scroll of paper towel. I never thought at the time that this was going to be a book, let alone a children’s book.

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

It is now 2005 – so twenty-two years from beginning to end – during which the poem lay in my drawer, dormant. In 1990 my Caldecott Medal for Lon Po Po (Philomel, 1989) coincided with the Horn Book Award. My reception talk for the Horn Book Award, Eight Matters of the Heart, was sparked by my work ethics. The talk inspired a book called Voices of the Heart, and the success of Voices made Beyond the Great Mountains possible. I approached Scholastic, HarperCollins, and Philomel before it was accepted by Chronicle. First, it was in an accordion format, which turned into this step-down method, a vertical book.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

I’ve been interested in the ideograms for many years. The challenge was to understand their evolution, since there are no ready-made answers, even among experts. Also to find the right format, which completes the book. The rest was easy.

Could you describe your artistic process for the illustrations?

When it was in the scroll format, it was simply sumi ink written with brush on paper towel. Then it was in a collage with limited colors in a tall and narrow accordion format. At Chronicle, it was finalized into the step-down format. Afterward, I redid the illustrations within a few months, by rounds and rounds of negotiations between mediums and sizes, until all the pages became a family. Then it’s a book.

What would you say have been your biggest influences, both as a writer and an illustrator? Or can you separate the two?

I never thought I was a writer until Pat Gauch, my editor at Philomel, encouraged me to record my voice telling my stories, and to transcribe them. That was in 1989, for my first written book, Lon Po Po. I have been an illustrator all my life and was influenced by illustrators from the U.S. before I could read or speak English.

As the creator (or co-creator) of more than 80 books for young readers, what have been your career highlights?

White Wave (Harcourt, 1996) was a book for which I opened myself up to the idea that for a book to be great, one has to accept the greater mind of the team in the making. Also Foolish Rabbit’s Big Mistake (Putnam, 1985), for which I allowed myself to use a medium appropriate to the story that was outside of its tradition, which in this case would have been Indian miniatures.

What advice do you have for author/illustrators–beginners and those who’ve published a book or two?

Know that picture book illustration is not a money-making profession. Do not allow that to hold the “artist” in you on a leash and lead you astray. (It even happens to some of the successful people.) Challenge yourself to resist shortcuts and complacency or to fall prey to trendy books. Anything worth making deserves your best effort. The richness is in your spirit, not in your pocket.

How would you describe the landscape today of Asian American children’s literature? What changes have you seen over the course of your career?

Overwhelmingly challenging in technology, in mediums, in styles, in standards. The sky is the limit. It’s exciting.

Of the children’s/YA books you’ve read this year, which are your favorites and why?

Many. One I saw recently is Shark God by Rafe Martin, illustrated by David Shannon (Arthur A. Levine, 2001). It’s noteworthy.

What can your fans expect from you next?

My Mei Mei (Philomel, 2005) will be in bookstores by mid February. It’s a personal story. Tiger of the Snow (Atheneum, 2006), a poem to celebrate Norgay and Hillary’s climb of Mt. Everest, will be out in May 2006.

Cynsational News & Links

An Excerpt and Q&A with Ed Young on Beyond The Great Mountains from Chronicle Books.

Ed Young from includes book guide and interview information.

Combating Censorship from NCTE. See also Censorship Challenges: What To Do, also from NCTE.

Horn Book Fanfare List: Best Books of 2005.