Minh Lê: Readers Are Perhaps My Most Important Collaborators

“I believe that a book isn’t finished until it’s being read,” says award-winning author Minh Lê, and that collaborative spirit clearly emerges in his forward-thinking attitude toward his young readers. It’s also obvious in the deep appreciation he expresses for the illustrators of his imaginative picture books and middle grade graphic novels.

Here in a conversation with Lisa Bullard, Lê talks about the value of shared experiences, he encourages young creators, and he offers great advice about working together as a team.

Photo credit Daniel Corey

Built to Last (Knopf, 2024), out on April 30, is the newest of the dazzling titles you’ve created with illustrator Dan Santat. How did this book come about?

It was so much fun to come up with the story for Built to Last, which is the fourth book that Dan and I have done together. It feels fitting that this one is about building a friendship through making things together, because that’s how Dan and I became friends.

Each of the books that we’ve done so far has focused on a different type of relationship. Drawn Together (Little, Brown, 2018) was about kids and their grandparents; Lift (Little, Brown, 2020) was about siblings; and The Blur (Knopf, 2022) was about kids and the adults in their lives. So, when it came time to do another book, I started by asking myself what other relationship/dynamic would be a natural next step to explore. That’s how I landed on a story about friendship.

How does the process work when you and Dan collaborate?

My general approach is to give Dan the basic bones of a story and then leave him with as much room to imagine the story as possible. When I sent him this manuscript about two friends, he apparently interpreted it as being about the two of us, so he illustrated it with a Baby Minh and a Baby Dan becoming friends. This added such a fun extra layer to the story because it’s about two people becoming friends by building imaginative worlds together. It’s about the spirit and magic of collaboration, which is my favorite part about making picture books. And with Dan, we’ve been collaborating for some time now, so we are really in sync, which makes collaborating even more fun.

Spreads from Built to Last

The importance of resilience is also woven into Built to Last. Why did you want to share that concept with young readers?

This is actually the heart of the story for me. I wanted to show that things don’t always work out the way you planned, and not only is that okay, sometimes it might even be for the best.

One of my favorites of Dan’s spreads is when a cat knocks over a wall that the kids are making. In the background you see the two kids doubled over with laughter. I love it because it shows a true bonding moment that happens when things go awry. That’s when it’s most important to be able to lean on each other and pick each other up; sometimes those moments that may feel unfortunate at the time are when you’re able to forge the strongest bonds.

Were there other concepts that had a big influence on the book?

I’ve been lucky enough to have had many great friends over the years. And my wife and I have two kids with whom we’ve spent so much time playing and building things together. It’s very clear to us that it’s never the thing we’re making that is of greatest value, it is the time we all spend together. That may sound a little cliché, but it’s a cliché for a reason: it’s true.

So Built to Last is really about the heart of friendship and the value of shared experiences—even those experiences that may seem disastrous in the moment.

It’s never the thing we’re making that is of greatest value, it is the time we all spend together.”

You’ve also worked with several other illustrators: Raissa Figueroa for the picture book Real to Me (Knopf, 2023) and Chan Chau for the graphic novel Enlighten Me (Little, Brown, 2023). How is each collaboration different?

I’ve had the privilege of working with so many talented illustrators, and each artist brings their own unique vision/perspective/flavor to a story. I love this because it gives the stories I write so much variety. Each new illustrator is like a breath of fresh air that takes these stories in new and unexpected directions.

As a writer, one of the most important parts of collaboration is creating opportunity for the illustrator. I like to write in a way that builds in moments for the illustrator to really spread their creative wings.

What advice do you have for students who are working on a collaborative project?

For me, the most important part of collaboration is trusting your partners and being open to change.

I’ve had many ideas over the years that have evolved and been shaped thanks to the input of others … and if I were too rigid and not open to new ideas, then the book wouldn’t have had the space to evolve into what it needed to be.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to accept every idea, but being open to input and trusting your partners is how you end up with a final product that is better than the sum of its parts.

Do you have tips to share about getting through the bumpy times that can happen during team projects?

If things go wrong, give yourself some time to be disappointed and recover if necessary, but once you’re ready, try to think of the bump in the road as an opportunity. Sometimes an unexpected mistake is what is necessary to jolt the group’s thinking and open things up to something even better.

Try to think of the bump in the road as an opportunity.”

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned through your writing collaborations?

The most important thing is to really honor the spirit of collaboration. I try to never refer to any of these as “my” book. I almost always refer to it as “our” book because none of these books have been made in isolation. These books only exist because of the hard work and creativity of so many people.

How does imagining your young readers influence the way you craft your books?

I definitely think of readers as the final and perhaps most important collaborators on any book.

Writing can be a strange thing because there’s a bit of a time-travel element involved. We’re creating these books which won’t be read until at least a year or two later, and with any luck, these books will continue to be read many decades down the road. So, how do you engage with a mysterious, unknown audience waiting somewhere in the future?

Our approach is to leave as much open-ended in a book as possible, to fill a book with unspoken moments and unwritten details so the reader has to lean in and complete the story. When you bring your own experience and imagination to a story, you are putting the finishing touches on our book. You ultimately decide what a story means, and that to me is when the magic of books is unleashed.

Minh Lê at school visits

What do you like best about creating books for young people?

My favorite part is getting to connect with readers through the power of stories.

I was a very shy kid, but I loved to read. So, I often say that as a reader, books were my escape from the world. But now as a writer, books have become my way back into the world because writing has given me a beautiful reason to connect with so many people.

I’ve had the chance to travel to so many places, in the U.S., Vietnam, and Europe—and each time I connect with a reader, and they share their own stories and experiences with me, that new connection makes the world feel a little smaller and a lot more beautiful than it did before. I can’t imagine a better way to spend a life than connecting with people through the magic of books.

Minh Lê Offers “3 Ps” for Young People Who Have a Creative Dream

1 Give yourself permission. I knew for a long time that I wanted to write books, but I spent so many years doubting myself and stopping myself before I even got started. So, giving yourself permission to go for that dream, whatever it may be, is maybe the most important step of all.

2 Be patient with yourself because things will not come out perfectly right away. If you’re not patient with yourself, if you don’t give yourself room to be imperfect, it’ll be too easy to give up.

3 Enjoy the process of creating. You can’t always control the outcome, so if you’re too focused on the results, then you can easily get frustrated and feel like you’re failing. You don’t know for sure if you’re going to get a book deal, if you’re going to make it to the NBA, or if your song is going to be a hit; but if you enjoy the process, if you savor the act of creating, then no matter what the results are, you’ve already won.

Download PDF of Minh Lê’s “3Ps”

I can’t imagine a better way to spend a life than connecting with people through the magic of books.”

Is there a particular book of yours that was most influenced by your own childhood?

All the books I’ve worked on are informed by my life in some way. I always tell readers that there are stories all around us, and it’s up to us to pay attention and notice them.

The book that is most personal to me is Drawn Together, which was inspired by my relationship with my grandparents, especially my paternal grandfather. I wrote that book to try to capture both the depth of love that existed in these relationships as well as the challenges. And it makes me so happy that anyone can see my grandfather’s smiling face on the dedication page. I can’t think of a better tribute to his memory than keeping his story and spirit alive by sharing this book with readers all over the world.

There are stories all around us, and it’s up to us to pay attention and notice them.”

What would you like to tell your fans about your forthcoming books?

When I started, it was a totally wild, unattainable dream just to have one book on the shelf, so the fact that I get to keep writing books is beyond my wildest dreams.

I do have several new books coming out in the near future, including A Lotus for You, which is the authorized picture book biography of one of my real-life heroes, Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. It is illustrated by the amazing Cátia Chien.

And it’s early, but Dan and I are already discussing a fifth book together. Stay tuned!

What are the best ways for educators and librarians to connect with you?

These days on social media I’m mostly on Instagram: @bottomshelfbks. You can also reach me via my website, minhlebooks.com. However you find me, I’d love to hear from you!

Connect With Minh Lê