A dynamic duo: writer Minh Lê and illustrator Dan Santat team up for ‘The Blur’
To hear Minh Lê and Dan Santat talk about each other, you might think they are friends for life. In fact, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, the team of writers and illustrators behind two bestselling children’s books often come across as artistic kindred spirits.
“Working with Minh has helped me grow tremendously as a person,” says Santat. “He understands how to write for an illustrator by giving the illustrator the freedom to visualize how it should be done. I’ve worked with so many different writers, and he is, hands down, probably the easiest and best collaborator I’ve ever worked with.
“There’s a rhythm that works really well, and I think we both have similar sensibilities and know each other’s strengths,” confirms Lê. “He knows how to interpret the words I give him and really breathe life into them. It works wonderfully, the way the partnership has evolved over time.
The duo’s partnership has paid off for both creators since their first collaboration in 2018 on the bestselling “Drawn Together,” a children’s book that won multiple awards and made more than a dozen “best book” lists. ” the end of the year. They followed that up with “Lift” in 2020 and now “The Blur,” which comes out this week. And while each of the books is a separate story, they could be considered a sort of trilogy that explores the intricacies, absurdities, and delicacies of the family.
“It’s a very different kind of book than ‘Drawn Together,’ but a lot of the emotional underpinning lives on, and I think of it almost as a loose trilogy,” Lê says from his home in La Mesa. “It’s kind of a cohesive family story in my head, and even though it’s not like a straight trilogy, they fit together nicely.”
Each of the three books explores a different dynamic within a family structure. “Drawn Together” was a tender story of a grandfather and grandson trying to connect but are separated by time and a language barrier. “Lift” follows a young girl struggling with jealousy issues over the birth of a younger brother, which leads her to become more independent but still binds her to her new sibling. And while each book deals with universal emotions and issues, “The Blur” might be Lê and Santat’s most personal statement to date.
The story of a fast-paced young girl and parents who can barely keep up with her, the titular “fuzziness” can have multiple meanings and interpretations depending on who reads the story. It’s a brilliantly executed metaphor on the passage of time that parents are sure to relate to, while young children are sure to see a kindred spirit in the girl at superhero speed. Santat, the father of her two children, says he immediately bonded with the story proposed by Lê.
“I hear him talk about those experiences and remember what it was like at that age,” says Santat, whose own sons are now teenagers. “Or I’m just like, ‘Oh my God, it’s been so long’, but it was really only five years ago. As a parent, you can really connect with the idea of how quickly the time spent.
“For me, when I write children’s books, I’m always aware of the different ages of the audiences who might read the book,” adds Lê. “I like layering different meanings, so I like to think a picture book is appropriate for any age. When people ask me what the age range is for a picture book, I always answer, half-jokingly, that the age range is from birth to death. Everyone can benefit from a great picture book.
Both Santat and Lê have connections in San Diego. The former grew up in New York but says it was his time at UC San Diego, where he studied microbiology, where he first caught the illustration bug.
“Before that, I had never taken art classes in my life, because my parents simply never let me take art classes,” Santat recalls. “So I was driving all over San Diego, going to figure drawing workshops all the way to El Cajon. For example, I would wake up really early in La Jolla and drive to El Cajon to do figure workshops and just try to put together a portfolio. I finally organized something and got into the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena. I called my parents and thought they were going to kill me.
A first-generation Vietnamese-American, Lê also grew up on the East Coast, attending Dartmouth College and Harvard University before settling in Maryland and the Washington, DC area. He moved to La Mesa in 2019 with his wife and children.
“My wife’s family lives in Fletcher Hills, and every time we visited I was like, ‘Why don’t we live here?’ recalls Le.
Long before they were artistic collaborators, Lê and Santat were mutual fanboys of each other’s work. Sanat credits an article Lê wrote for the Huffington Post website with being one of the reasons his book, “The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend,” won the Caldecott Prize in 2015. Lê says the same book allowed him to find his own voice. when it came to children’s books. An agent eventually suggested they work together.
And while the two have other projects they’re currently working on without each other (Santat recently released another children’s book, “Endlessly Ever After,” while Lê puts the finishing touches on the Authorized Biography from the picture book of Nobel Peace Prize-nominated monk Thích Nhất Hạnh), they both say that their creative friendship is far from over.
“Dan often says that I write like an illustrator and that, to me, is a huge compliment,” says Lê. “He has an incredible sense of energy, playfulness and drive, and one of the things I love the most about his work is that there’s like this underlying heart to him. everything.”
“I’ve been illustrating other people’s manuscripts for years and I’ve worked with a lot of different people, but there’s this thing where sometimes you read a manuscript and you can immediately tell it’s going to be something special, adds Santat. “I would say there’s probably a handful, maybe four or five tracks that I’ve worked on, where I thought that even though they weren’t written by me, I ‘ looked and said, ‘This has the potential to be something very special.’ ”
“The Blur” written by Minh Lê and illustrated by Dan Santat (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2022; 40 pages)
Warwick’s Gifts Minh Le and Dan Santat
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday
Or: La Jolla Riford Library 7555 Draper Ave, La Jolla
In line: warwicks.com
Combs is a freelance writer.