Meet the Writer Inspired by Maya Lin’s Story
by Alana Pedalino
Read this Scholastic Book Clubs–exclusive interview with Jeanne Harvey Walker, author of Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and Lines, a picture-book biography that celebrates the accomplishments of preeminent architectural artist Maya Lin.
When Maya Lin’s vision for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was chosen as the monument’s design, she faced backlash from people who thought she was “too young.”
But Maya didn’t back down, and now her thought-provoking work is visited by three million people each year and has been described by Vanity Fair as “far and away the greatest memorial of modern times—the most beautiful, the most heart-wrenching, the most subtle, and the most powerful.”
We were fortunate enough to interview Jeanne Harvey Walker, the author behind the picture-book biography Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and Lines. After reading the book, check out the Q&A below with your students to discover Jeanne’s thoughts on Maya’s legacy and how Maya’s courageous story thrills and inspires her.
Why are you passionate about writing kids’ books?
I hold children in such high regard, and I feel a deep sense of responsibility to try to write stories that will hopefully inspire or resonate with them. I love their insights, imagination, enthusiasm, energy, humor, and compassion. The books I read as a child meant so very much to me because they expanded my world and allowed me to share in the experiences of others. If any of my books connects with a child in some such way, I’ll always be greatly honored.
You first heard about Maya Lin in college. How does Maya continue to inspire you years later?
As an artist and architect, Maya Lin continues to inspire me. The works she’s created since the Vietnam Veterans Memorial have included not only other stunningly beautiful and powerful memorials, such as the Civil Rights Memorial and the Women’s Table, but also art and architecture with a minimal aesthetic that appeals to me.
And in recent years, Maya Lin has focused her work on her passion for the environment. She invites viewers of her artworks to consider the impact of climate change. For example, her What Is Missing? project (www.whatismissing.net) is fascinating. The project combines innovative artworks that utilize sound, media, and scientific and historical information to connect people to the species, places, and natural phenomena that have disappeared or may disappear if not protected.
I’ve admired Maya Lin’s beautiful wood-and-bronze cone-shaped multimedia sculpture What’s Missing, at the San Francisco California Academy of Sciences, which was “the first component of her international multi-sited, multimedia art project dedicated to raising awareness about the current crisis surrounding biodiversity and habitat loss.” When I saw the piece, I was able to put my head inside the piece and hear sounds of endangered and extinct species and see related images created from photos and videos from scientific sources. Very powerful piece!
Why should young people know who Maya Lin is and learn about what she did?
Maya Lin is a renowned sculpture and landscape artist-architect.
In 1981, when Maya Lin was 21 years old and a senior at Yale University, she won a national contest that drew 1,441 submissions—including many from famous artists and architects—to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. The judges were shocked when they opened the envelope on the back of her submission and learned that the winner was a young Asian woman still in college. And even though her design was chosen, harsh and personal criticisms arose during subsequent governmental hearings. For example, her design was called “a black gash of shame and sorrow.” But Maya Lin stood up to these challenges. She showed conviction and courage and didn’t back down.
Maya Lin specifically didn’t research the Vietnam War or the controversies surrounding it. Instead she kept in mind the three requirements for the memorial contest: the design needed to contain all the names of those missing and killed (57,000); it needed to be not political; and it needed to be harmonious with the site on the Washington Mall.
When Maya Lin visited the proposed site for the memorial, she conceived the idea for the design. And then, she envisioned, over time the grass would grow back. But the cut would be a flat surface with a mirrored edge, like the surface of a geode. She wanted a place where visitors would interact with the names. As they walked down to the apex and then back up, the visitors’ reflections would be mirrored on the names etched in the black granite. An important distinction—not a wall, but an edge to the earth, an opened side.
In 2016, President Obama awarded Maya Lin the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and I thought his speech was very moving. He said:
“Maya Lin’s…controversial and unconventional V-shaped memorial design (dedicated in 1982) symbolized the gravity of war and the loss of soldiers in a politically turbulent era.
“When an undergraduate from rural Appalachia [Maya] first stepped foot on the National Mall many years ago, she was trying to figure out a way to show that war is not just a victory or a loss, but about individual lives.…The Vietnam Veterans Memorial has changed the way we think about monuments but also about how we feel about sacrifice and patriotism and ourselves.”
What are your thoughts on creativity and the arts in schools?
I’m a huge advocate of creativity and the arts in schools in all forms—writing, drama, music, dance, and visual arts. I believe when children’s natural ability to be creative is fostered and encouraged, their lives are greatly enriched, and they will sense more connection and care for their communities and the world in general. I’m a longtime docent for school groups at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. As part of our program, we visit the classrooms before the students come on their tours, and I see firsthand the difference arts programs make to these children. And I commend teachers who emphasize creativity and arts education in their classrooms when so many arts programs have been tragically cut from the schools. I strongly believe the arts classes should be as valued as any other subject.
Have any of Maya’s creative strategies helped you create children’s books?
I found it really interesting to learn about Maya Lin’s creative process in designing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. She explained that she thought the most important aspect of the design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was that she originally designed it for a class she was taking at Yale, and not for the competition. As she said, she designed it for herself the way she thought it should be, and not what she thought a jury would choose. She wrote a long eloquent explanation of why she chose her design. And she only decided right before the deadline to enter the contest, and only after she had completed her design. I, too, always choose to write my children’s books in the way that calls to me, and not by trying to second-guess the publishing market. And then if one of my books is chosen to be published, I’m always thrilled and honored.
What did your students take away from this interview? How does Maya Lin inspire them? We’d love to hear from you. Please share with us on social media using the hashtag #ScholasticBookClubs.
Jeanne Walker Harvey studied literature and psychology at Stanford University and has had many jobs, ranging from roller-coaster ride operator to attorney and, most recently, middle school teacher of language arts and writing workshops. She is the author of several books for young readers, including My Hands Sing the Blues: Romare Bearden’s Childhood Journey. She lives in California.
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