Lyme Native’s Children’s Books Are Illustrated Science Lessons

  • A page from "Grand Canyon," a children's book written and illustrated by Jason Chin, who grew up in Lyme. Chin's work is at once entertaining for children to read, but also full of information about the natural world.(Courtesy Jason Chin)

  • Children's book author and illustrator Jason Chin grew up in Lyme. (Courtesy Jason Chin)

Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, March 12, 2018

As a kid, the author-illustrator Jason Chin read all sorts of books. But as he got older, into high school and college, he found himself becoming more and more of a “reluctant reader,” he said. There was something “just not enjoyable” about his school assignments, and his once-loved hobby became a painful chore.

Chin, who grew up in Lyme and is a 1997 graduate of Hanover High School, is glad he got back into it. He recently received a Caldecott Honor — considered one of the most prestigious awards for children’s picture books, if not the most prestigious — for his most recent title, Grand Canyon. The informational book is Chin’s way of getting kids excited about learning, and combines the story of a father-daughter trip with richly illustrated lessons about the geology and ecology of the cavernous rock formation.

It wasn’t until after he graduated Syracuse University that Chin fell back in love with reading. He was working in New York City at the time, and riding the subway gave him ample time to kill. One day he read a magazine article about redwood trees.

“It captured my imagination in a way that hadn’t happened for a long time,” he said. “I just kept thinking about what I’d read in the article, and it stuck with me.” This moment became the inspiration for the first children’s book he wrote, and the first he illustrated that got major attention: Redwoods, published in 2009. It’s about a young boy who, while riding the subway, happens upon a book about the giant trees, and as he reads and learns about the forests where they grow, he’s transported there.

Chin had a few illustration credits under his belt at this point, but writing for young readers was a new challenge for him. Nearly a decade later, he finally identifies as an author as much as an illustrator, though he still feels that visual artwork is his forte.

“I don’t consider myself an exceptional writer by any stretch. I have a hard time writing stories. I couldn’t even begin to write a poem,” he said.

He’s more confident in his ability to research and write educational texts, which he considers less a creative endeavor than an act of translation. “That’s all making something accessible is,” he said. His website offers downloadable curriculum guides for teachers who want to incorporate Chin’s books into their lessons in a way that aligns with Common Core State Standards.

Chin may not think much of his own writing, but according to reviewers, he may be his own worst critic.

“Just watching the scenery go by in Chin’s sumptuous watercolors could be satisfaction enough for many readers,” gushes a five-star review of Grand Canyon in the academic journal Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books. “(B)ut textual commentary on the rock formations, as well as the ecological communities of flora and fauna in the changing climate zones, form the basis of a multidisciplinary science lesson far more engrossing than kids are likely to encounter in a classroom.”

“Chin’s straightforward, lucid text seamlessly integrates concepts and scientific terms in engaging paragraphs full of surprising information, all of which is beautifully complemented by the illustrations,” goes another, from Booklist.

After the critical success of Redwoods came Coral Reefs (2011), then Island: A Story of the Galapagos (2012). A common thread through many of his books, he said, is the interconnections among different spheres of Earth — such as the geosphere, the solid portion of the planet that includes all rocks and landmasses, and the biosphere, which is the sphere that all living things call home. He’s also drawn to the “origin stories” behind the natural features of the earth, and “keystone species” — species that play a crucial role in their ecosystem, directly and indirectly supporting countless other organisms.

But connections in nature aren’t the only ones that drive Chin’s work: Human relationships have played a role, too. Trina Schart Hyman, a 1985 Caldecott winner who illustrated more than 150 children’s books in her life, also lived in Lyme. She was Chin’s mentor throughout high school and college, when he was a reluctant reader but was gravitating toward art.

“When I said, ‘Trina, I’m going to apply to art school,’ she said ‘What the hell would you want to do that for?’ ” Chin recalled. “In a joking way, of course. But she was always very realistic and honest with me about the challenges of being artist.” Despite her words of caution, her influence on Chin was such that after her death in 2004, he decided that “the obvious thing for me to do was pursue children’s books.”

Hyman was notable not only for the quality and quantity of her artwork, but also its content: She was one of the first white American illustrators to incorporate black characters into her work. Chin also makes it a point to depict people of color in his illustrations, so that beneath the chief lessons of the book’s subject matter, there’s also another, subtler takeaway for readers.

Chin is of Chinese background (his dad, whose parents were born in China, is Chinese-American). Though he never felt explicitly bullied or discriminated against because of his race, growing up in the Upper Valley meant he always felt conscious of his ethnicity.

“Here’s the thing, though. It was never in a really bad way,” he said. “I think it was very rarely, if ever, malicious or antagonistic.” Of course, there were the constant questions about where he was from — no, but where was he really from? — which he attributed to the fact that kids, by nature, are curious and not the most tactful.

“It’s not a bad question. There’s no appropriate way to inquire about why someone looks different than you, I guess,” he said. “It’s a question that’s important, I think, for adults to teach children to ask in a way that won’t make people uncomfortable or upset, and teach them, ‘Look, when you’re asking that, you’re pointing out that someone’s different from you.’ Kids will get that.”

But he’s also trying to normalize diversity in children’s literature. Many of the characters in his illustrations are Asian-American, including the little boy in Redwoods, and the father and daughter in Grand Canyon. He illustrated a book coming out this spring, titled Pie Is for Sharing, that includes his own children and their racially diverse group of friends.

“I set it on the Fourth of July because the book is about sharing, and sharing is an American value — or should be an American value — that I want to promote,” he said. Pie has one scene that’s set up a bit like Norman Rockwell’s Freedom From Want, which depicts a family gathered ’round a Thanksgiving dinner table, except Chin’s version features people of color. In this way, Chin hopes to help revise the definition of “all-American” to reflect the more inclusive values of the 21st century.

The Caldecott is something of an all-American honor — it’s awarded by the American Library Association, and only goes to American-published books — but Chin feels that given Hyman’s body of work, he’s got some catching up to do.

“There’s no such thing as a best book or best artwork. There’s only great books and great artwork,” he said. “But as far as stamps of approval go, this one is pretty great.”

More information about the books of Jason Chin, and accompanying resources for teachers, can be found at jasonchin.net.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at ejholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.