A dynamic duo: author Minh Lê and illustrator Dan Santat team up for The Blur

When you hear Minh Lê and Dan Santat talking about each other, you’d think they’d be friends for life. At the risk of sounding exaggerated, the writer-illustrator team behind two bestselling children’s books often makes it sound like artistic soulmates.

“Working with Minh just helped me grow tremendously as a person,” says Santat. “He knows how to write for an illustrator, giving the illustrator the freedom to imagine how it should be done. I have worked with so many different writers and he is hands down the easiest and best collaborator I have 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,” Lê agrees. “He knows how to interpret the words I give him and he just really breathes life into them. It just works beautifully the way the partnership has evolved over time.”

The duo’s partnership has borne fruit for both creators since their first collaboration in 2018 on bestselling Drawn Together, a children’s book that has won multiple awards and racked up over a dozen year-end Best Book lists. They followed in 2020 with “Lift” and now with “The Blur” which will be released this week. And while each of the books is a story in its own right, they could be viewed as a trilogy of sorts, exploring the complexity, absurdity, and intricacies of the family.

“It’s a very different kind of book than Drawn Together, but a lot of the emotional underpinnings remain, and I see it almost as a loose trilogy,” says Lê from his home in La Mesa. “It’s such a cohesive family story in my mind, and while it’s not strictly a trilogy, they fit together well.”

Each of the three books examines a different dynamic within a family structure. “Drawn Together” was a tender tale about a grandfather and grandson who tried to bond but are separated by time and a language barrier. “Lift” follows a young girl who struggles with issues of jealousy with the birth of a younger brother, leading her to become more independent but still attached to her new sibling. And while each book explores universal emotions and themes, The Blur may well be Lê and Santat’s most personal statement yet.

The story of a nimble young girl and parents who can barely keep up with her, the title “Blur” can have multiple meanings and interpretations depending on who is reading the story. It’s a brilliantly executed metaphor about the passage of time that parents will surely identify with, while young children will surely see a kindred spirit in the young girl with superhero speeds. Santat, who has two children of his own, says he was immediately drawn to the story Lê suggested.

“I hear him talk about those experiences and I remember what it was like at that age,” says Santat, whose own sons are now teenagers. “Or I’ll just be like, ‘Oh my god, that seemed like a long time,’ but it really was only five years ago. As a parent, it’s really easy to reconnect with the idea of ​​how time flies.”

“When I write books for children, I always pay attention to the different ages of the audience who might read the book,” adds Lê. “I like layering different meanings, so I like to think that a picture book is suitable for all ages. When people ask me what the age range for a picture book is, I always half-jokely tell them that the age range is from birth to death. Everyone can enjoy a great picture book.”

“The Blur” written by Minh Le and illustrated by Dan Santat

Both Santat and Lê have connections to San Diego. The former grew up in New York but says it was his time to attend UC San Diego, where he studied microbiology, which is where he first got infected with the illustration virus.

“Before that, I had never taken an art class in my life because my parents just wouldn’t let me take art classes,” recalls Santat. “So I drove all over San Diego and took character drawing workshops all the way out to El Cajon. For example in La Jolla I woke up very early and drove all the way to El Cajon to do figure workshops and just try to put a portfolio together. I finally put something together and got into ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena. I called my parents thinking they were going to kill me.”

A first-generation Vietnamese-American, Lê also grew up on the East Coast and attended Dartmouth College and Harvard University before settling in Maryland and the Washington, DC area. He moved to La Mesa with his wife and children in 2019.

“My wife’s family lives in Fletcher Hills, and every time we would visit, I would think, ‘Why don’t we live out here?’ ‘” Lee recalls.

Long before they became artistic collaborators, Lê and Santat were mutual fanboys of each other’s work. Sanat credits an article Lê wrote for the Huffington Post website as one of the reasons his book The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend won the 2015 Caldecott Award. Lê says the same book was instrumental in finding his own voice when it comes to children’s books. An agent eventually suggested working together.

And while both have other projects they’re currently working on without the other (Santat has recently released another children’s book, Endless Ever After, while Lê is putting the finishing touches on the authorized picture-book biography of Nobel Peace Prize-nominated monk Thích Nhất Hạnh), both say their creative friendship is far from over.

“Dan often says I write like an illustrator, and I take that as a huge compliment,” says Lê. “He has such an amazing sense of energy, playfulness and dynamism, and one of the things I love most about his work is that everything has such heart.”

“I’ve illustrated other people’s manuscripts for years and worked with a lot of different people, but sometimes you read a manuscript and you immediately know it’s going to be something special. ‘ adds Santat. “I would say there’s probably a handful, maybe four or five titles that I’ve worked on that I didn’t think were actually written by me, but I looked at them and said, ‘That did that Potential to become 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

From where: La Jolla Riford Library 7555 Draper Ave., La Jolla

Tickets: Free

On-line: warwicks.com

Combs is a freelance writer.

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