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.

A Conversation with Ed Young

What inspired you to create Beyond the Great Mountains, your lovely and mystical visual poem about China? What is the genesis of its unusual design?

The origins of this book date back some 20 years when I was teaching a workshop in Boulder, Colorado, on Chinese brushwork and calligraphy called "grounding brush." It was to introduce Chinese characters. Since I wasn't prepared to do a demonstration, I made a spontaneous poem on a roll of paper towels from a washroom in sumi brush and ink. When I finished I rolled it up and put it away. That poem has now become Beyond the Great Mountains with minor changes. The original scroll contains more than 40 very basic symbols, and this book contains about 24, but at the heart it is the same poem I wrote twenty years ago.

My fascination with Chinese symbols has always been a part of me, especially since the 1960s, but I never thought of turning that fascination into a book. It was my own pleasure, my own hobby, to study characters. Several years after that workshop, I received the Caldecott Medal for Lon Po Po: A Red-Riding Hood Story from China. I also received an award from The Horn Book. Not wanting to give a speech that I'd already given, at the Horn Book ceremony I talked about the "Eight Matters of the Heart," about the place where I put my mind before I do my work. It's just reminder for me. I put that on the screen before the audience, introducing them to the way in which I work. Then later, when my talk was printed in the magazine, many librarians wrote in to ask for copies. It blossomed into a poster, "Take Time for Eight Matters of the Heart," and then finally grew into a book, published by a Scholastic editor Phoebe Yeh. That book, now a smaller gift book, is called Voices of the Heart.

I have since been aching to bring out Beyond the Great Mountains because people were writing me about these Chinese characters and it seemed everyone wanted to have more of this kind of my work. I gave my original poem to Phoebe Yeh, but she had changed to a less venturesome publisher. She suggested that I send it to Victoria Rock at Chronicle Books as Chronicle was known for doing innovative projects.

So I sent a whole stack of stuff to Victoria, who was interested, but she was moving offices, and even had a baby before we figured out a way to publish it. A large scroll isn't a suitable format for a book, and even a fold-out, kind of a long accordion type of book seemed very expensive to produce, and not very practical for libraries. So I said to Victoria, if you don't think an accordion would work, maybe you can find some other way to do it. So Victoria, her crew, and Sara Gillingham, the book's designer, got very involved and finally found the perfect way to show this poem to the world. They developed this stepped kind of a book, where the whole poem becomes visible upon the first opening. Then when you open each page, the poem is revealed. Vertically, as it turned out, is also how Chinese is read—from top to bottom. It's just a beautiful thing. I didn't think this would be affordable or possible but they really made it work. After that it became a book very quickly. I have everyone at Chronicle to thank for that format. This is why I love the book so much—it has so much energy in it.

In the West there is a preconception that the Chinese language is complex and difficult to learn. They are discouraged to hear that you need to learn 4,000 characters in order to read a Chinese newspaper. But then I explain once you learn the roots of the characters, which are merely pictures, and once the pictures are put together to communicate your ideas, it is quite easy. And you are very likely to understand what the answer to each puzzle is. There are 214 root pictures and they are the basis of all Chinese characters. Not for just 4,000, but all Chinese characters. So in Beyond the Great Mountains I am introducing 1/8 of the basis of all Chinese characters in just one picture book! And these roots become the basis of Chinese reading. With these root characters, you can begin to understand everything. It's truly fascinating. In other words, characters are really just visual puzzles, and once you unravel the pieces, you have a handle on the written language.

There are many Chinese dialects, but are the characters the same regardless of what language is spoken?

There are so many different dialects in China, but the characters are all the same. Korean, Japanese, all Asian languages use these characters as their written basis. If you ever see two people coming together who speak different dialects, you'll see that if they don't have a pencil they will write Chinese characters on their palm with their finger. Writing picture words is the primary way in communication.

Your book seems like the perfect introduction to Asian culture—not just the written language—for Western children.

Oh yes, imagine the generation that's coming up. They are moving into a very changed world of global communications. English-speaking children will need to be in communication with cultures that use Chinese characters as the basis for their language. This means one quarter of the world's population! For children who will want to be involved in world economics and world affairs, loving and learning about Chinese characters is essential. If they will have something to do with the future of world relationships they will want to be familiar with Chinese. Librarians and teachers are getting excited in hooking into this reality of that aspect of our future. Educators are very smart to be introducing a handle on the Chinese language to our children's curriculum in the United States.

You spent your early years in China. Do you travel back to China often?

I do go to China every year to see my mother—she is 101 and lives in Beijing with my brother. When I am there with my family I take some time to travel to surrounding areas of the country. My daughters are ten and seven; they are learning Chinese from a good teacher and they love it. Once kids know that the adults are having fun, the kids will be too! In Beyond the Great Mountains I am teaching Chinese through the characters, through pictures, the way I would have liked to have learned it. I don't think the traditional rote way of learning is very fun or natural for a kid. This way is superior to the old.

Is it true that Beyond the Great Mountains is the favorite of all of your books?

It is definitely my favorite book—for now. And I don't say that about every book. I still remember the creation of every book. But this is a 20-year-old child that is finally getting birthed; it is a special book.

You have illustrated Beyond the Great Mountains with paper collages. How did you choose paper collage over another medium?

Paper collage is something I am comfortable with. It gives more surface and texture than paint. To me, painting is more limiting. Paper is flexible. If you don't like the sketch you just get rid of it. As a process, it is a quick way of getting something into the picture. If it feels good you keep working with it. With paint it is more rigid. I love the kind of texture that paper provides. It's a very natural way for me to go.

The textures and colors of the paper you have used are quite beautiful. How did you choose your papers? Were there special qualities about certain papers that appealed to you?

I still have the original roll of paper towels from 20 years ago. Some of the papers used in this book are very old. I love papers. I don't ever throw them away. I even save paper napkins. They have a nice texture on them, just like rice paper in China. Paper comes from trees and trees are a part of us. Some of the papers I used are actually bought, but others are papers I sort of picked up from different places where people discard papers. They're recycled. Some are created by myself. I make the patterns myself. Some papers I have crumbled. Others are painted with sponges. I use different ways to create the textures.

How have the illustrations evolved?

The poem came first that day long ago in Boulder, and some of the illustrations that I made with that original poem were not appropriate to use in a children's picture book. Now it has become a very colorful book. I have created all of the illustrations anew just for this book, focusing on just one or two Chinese characters for each spread. Once we settled on this wonderful format, the colors really took off.

Much of your work has been inspired by Chinese painting and traditional Chinese stories. Do you have other sources of inspiration?

I go to the masters for inspiration. I'm largely inspired by Matisse and his collages. Matisse is my teacher for Beyond the Great Mountains. He gave me his inspiration. I love him and his collages. His figures are so simple and yet so sensual and so human.

Beyond the Great Mountains can be described as an ode to ancient China and Chinese symbols. In your Author's Note, you write that the purpose of the book "is to share your fascination... with the hidden wisdom of symbols." It has been documented that the legendary mythologist Joseph Campbell urged people to follow their "fascination" in addition to the more famous aphorism, "follow your bliss." Will you tell us more about your fascination?

My fascination with the wisdom of symbols is related to the fact that each word contains a 4,000-year-old history of people re-creating that word. It's almost like an archaeological dig. When you dig, you find that words have been simplified over the generations. If I have a word that is made from symbols that I know and then I meet another person coming from a different place far away with another set of symbols, then the two of us meet and we compare symbols. We look at each other and say, "this one doesn't make sense to me but this one does," so after some time we create a new symbol from the two. You have a joining effect, a kind of wedding of two words. You have an agreement of the proper way to intermarry two words. Well, this has happened for thousands of words, an evolution down to the modern characters that we have today. The study of these intermarriages of symbols is my fascination. You go into history and you find out that one character comes from this particular society at this time with this value system and a particular feeling related to this and so forth, so you go into all the different relationships in time around a word and then you understand it. Say you have a particular kind stone that someone then finds and makes into an arrowhead; this becomes a character over the ages with its own spirit in it. You don't understand it just by looking at it—you must want to know the people in the past. It is a kind of etymology, these layers of meanings embedded in characters. I do this kind of study as a hobby, and that is my fascination.

Beyond the Great Mountains, your "visual poem about China," feels very Buddhist or Taoist—your words are meditative and reflective about nature and earth, your collages show a grounded sense of harmony with nature and the universe. Will you comment about the spiritual nature of your work?

I feel that the spiritual aspect of people is revealed in the love that they have for whatever they do. If you love writing, you forget all of the time that you spend on your writing. If you spend hours waking up in the middle of night thinking of this work and in the morning you cannot leave it so you go right back to work on that, then you are in love with that work. So on a spiritual level, there are the ancients who put the spirit into these characters and I get that because I am interested in that. So producing a book becomes part of the spirit of each person who touched it. And therefore it becomes a spiritual book. Beyond the Great Mountains has a lot of spirit in it!

Is there something that you could tell a Western child (with no experience with Chinese languages, characters, or symbols) about Chinese characters?

My message for a Western child is the same for a Chinese child. The Western child would not know the word has pictures until you show it to them and once they know that they will want to write that out for themselves. Children are always drawing pictures—it is very natural for them to express their feelings and ideas in pictures. They do this even before they learn to write. This enhances their ability to communicate with their world very naturally. As adults as well.

Are you looking forward to bringing this book back with you on your next trip to China?

I will definitely bring this book to China. Yes.

What will your next work be?

I am working now on my book about Chinese animals. I will introduce another 20 or 30 characters rooted in animals, another 1/8 of the basic 214 characters!

Go to www.TeachingBooks.net/EdYoung for an in-studio movie with Ed Young.