I will go out on a limb and say that if you read only one picture book this year, it should be this one.
Okay, the limb is creaking because there are so many wonderful picture books, but this one should truly be at the top of your list.
Watercress is about memory.
It’s about family.
It’s about how immigration shapes perspective.
It’s about survival.
It’s about how family trauma remains hidden until unearthed to make a point.
It’s about shame.
And it’s about making new memories within the long shadows of the old ones.
I’m not going to give you a synopsis. I’m just going to say that this book should be added to your MUST READ pile.
I will, however, take a moment to talk about craft, and Jason Chin, the illustrator. I’ve heard him describe all of his research to make sure he did this story justice. Like reading family testimony about the Great Famine in China. Studying the history of Chinese painting and the importance of the brush to the Chinese painter. Experimenting with painting on rice paper…… He pretty much left no stone unturned. In one of his many masterful spreads, the Ohio corn of present day fades into sepia-toned bamboo and a memory of long ago China. Pure gorgeousness.
But even masters can get too close to their subject matter. In one spread (that did not make it into the book) I think he became so wrapped up in the trauma of the story, the history of the famine, that he depicted the bodies of those who’d starved lying along a road in China.
Oh. No. This is a picture book.
It is comforting to know that “being in the weeds” happens to everyone. Luckily, it takes a village to make a picture book!
A quick conversation with his editor, Neal Porter, and art director, Jennifer Browne, put him back on track.
The result is an exquisitely understated and painful moment, one that leaves me in tears every time I read the book.
Every word, every moment contains the weight of all history, and the history of one family.
If you’re feeling ambitious, try Chinese painting. Watch this video of an artist showing how to paint an “easy” panda.
Make your own watercress salad with this sesame-pepper vinaigrette:
- 1⁄4 cup fresh lemon juice
- 2 tbsp. plus 1 tsp. toasted sesame oil
- 1 tbsp. soy sauce
- 1 tbsp. toasted sesame seeds
- 1 tsp. szechuan pepper, ground
- 1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
- 1 tsp. packed dark brown sugar
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 8 oz. watercress
Pair this book with Dreamers by Yuyi Morales.
Author: Andrea Wang
Illustrator: Jason Chin
Publisher: Holiday House, 2021
Themes: shame, immigration, memory
Ages: K-5th grade
For more perfect picture book recommendations, please visit Susanna Hill’s website.