Food in some form is necessary for us to survive. What we eat, when we eat, who we eat with (or not), and where we eat can be a matter of routine and customs or change often. Watercress (Neal Porter Books, Holiday House, March 30, 2021) written by Andrea Wang with pictures by Jason Chin is an intimate portrait of a particular food and its place in a family's history. As children we can never truly know the full extent of our parent's past, until they make the choice to reveal it to us.
We are in the old Pontiac,
the red paint faded by years of
glinting Ohio sun,
and biting snow.
An unexpected cry from the mother has the car suddenly halting. Both parents simultaneously say the same word, watercress. There is something rarely heard in the tone of their voices. From the trunk of the car, they remove a paper bag, and scissors, the worse for wear.
The children, an older brother and sister, are asked to help gather the watercress. They remove their socks and shoes to wade in the cold, muddy water of the ditch. When a car goes by, the daughter hopes it is no one she knows. Her brother teases her with a soggy mess of watercress, and she grows weary of stuffing it into the sack. Not soon enough for the daughter, everything and everyone is back in the car and heading home.
At dinner that evening the daughter refuses to eat the watercress. It represents, to her, all the free things in their lives which set her aside from being her perception of normal. The mother leaves the table and returns with a photograph of her family in China. Her younger brother is in the photograph. Of him, the brother and sister know nothing.
As her mother tells a sorrowful tale of her childhood in China, the girl is filled with shame for her thoughts and refusal to eat the watercress. She now understands the significance of the leafy vegetable. She begins to eat it, savoring its unique flavor. It is a taste she will remember. This is a story she will tell, to be passed from generation to generation.
As you read the free-verse poetic text penned by Andrea Wang, you feel as though you've stepped back in time and place. The use of simile and alliteration and detailed descriptions create a sensory experience. Regardless of your family's history, empathy for this girl, her parents, and the entire family is foremost in your mind and heart. We identify with her first-person narrative and the inclusion of some conversation. Here is a passage.
The tops of the cornstalks make
lines that zigzag
across the horizon.
and the car comes to
an abrupt, jerking stop.
Mom's eyes are as sharp as
the tip of
a dragon's claw.
The illustrations rendered by Jason Chin
using watercolor on 140 pound cold press Saunders watercolor paper
are first visible to readers on the open dust jacket. It is here we see his color choices, each representing the present and the past and a blend of the two. The cornstalks on the right, front, transition to stalks of bamboo across and left of the spine. Our narrator unhappily wading in the ditch to gather watercress along the side of the road becomes, on the back, her mother and her younger brother as children seated on a grassy hill overlooking their village. The sky here is not that of a sunny day in Ohio, but a dismal sky in a China suffering during a famine.
On the book case Jason Chin presents us with an up-close view of watercress growing in a watery setting. The circular leaves of varying shades of green float on a darker surface. In the lower, right-hand corner is a dragonfly. Its red body and translucent wings rest on top of the watercress. Its presence is suggestive of transformation.
A deep teal covers the opening and closing endpapers. It is close in color to the varnished title text on the dust jacket. On the initial title page, we see the red Pontiac in the distance driving down the country road between midwestern fields of crops. On the formal title page, the perspective has shifted. The rows of corn are close to us on the left side of the image. The car is driving down the dirt road directly at readers, on the right. A row of utility poles line the road on the right. With a page turn, the point of view alters again. The car spans, close, across both pages. The narrator of the story, the daughter, looks out the back window. Farther away, next to her, sits her brother.
With each page turn, we are always immersed in the story, but our vantage point changes. To elevate the text and emphasize pacing, the illustration sizes are either double-page pictures or full-page visuals. Like the dust jacket, there is a stunning display, a blend of the present and the past. We are aware of the emotional state of each family member by their facial features and body postures. You find yourself filling with compassion for each one.
One of my many favorite images is a double-page illustration. For me, a drive in the country becomes the beginning of a huge revelation. On the left is the corn field growing up to the watery ditch filled with watercress. There is a small grassy slope from the road to the ditch. On the right the road comes into view with the red Pontiac demanding the focus of our attention. The mother is looking out the passenger window at the watercress. The father is leaning in her direction, noticing what she is seeing. The sky reflects the hazy heat of a summer afternoon.
The sheer beauty of the words and paintings in this story, Watercress written by Andrea Wang with art by Jason Chin, not only envelopes the reader but resonates long after the final sentence is read, and the last image is seen. This is a book to read repeatedly. At the close of the book is an author's note and an illustrator's note. You'll want a copy for your personal and professional collections.
To discover more about Andrea Wang and Jason Chin and their other work, please visit their respective websites by following the link attached to their names. You will find numerous useful links at Andrea Wang's site. Andrea Wang has accounts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Jason Chin has accounts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Scholastic's Ambassador of School Libraries, John Schumacher, features Andrea Wang and this book on his blog, Watch. Connect. Read. Both Andrea Wang and Jason Chin talk about this book at Publishers Weekly. This book is highlighted on NPR, Picture This. An interview with Andrea Wang at The Yarn, School Library Journal, by Colby Sharp gives you further insight about this title. At author, reviewer, and blogger Julie Danielson's Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, this title and Jason Chin are showcased. At the publisher's website is an educator's guide. At Penguin Random House, you can view the initial title page.