I’m so excited to share this incredible picture book, Watercress by Andrea Wang and Jason Chin, with you! Here’s our review plus a fascinating interview with the author and illustrator.
Note: I received a copy of the book from the publisher, Holiday House Publishing, for review purposes. All thoughts and opinions are entirely my own. Amazon links in this post are Affiliate Links.
This new picture book, Watercress by Andrea Wang and Jason Chin, is absolutely spectacular!
It’s an autobiographical story inspired by the author’s tender and painful memories of growing up in the American Midwest and learning how to embrace her Chinese heritage.
The story opens with a Chinese American family pulling their car over to gather watercress growing on the side of the road. As they are squelching through the mud, the main character, a young girl is embarrassed and visibly uncomfortable. As her parents express excitement over finding food that is both fresh and free, their young daughter just wishes she could get her dinner from a restaurant, not a ditch.
Later, as the family is eating the watercress they gathered, the mother shares an emotional story about her own childhood in China that allows her daughter to understand the significance of the watercress and see her parents and their Chinese heritage with more compassion and understanding. It’s a very moving and beautiful story about feeling different and connecting with difficult memories of the past.
We fell in love with this book the first time we picked it up! The illustrations by award winning author/illustrator Jason Chin are incredible and add layers to Andrea Wang’s moving story. It’s a must-read book! We even went and found some actual watercress so we could try it and connect a little more with the book.
And because we enjoyed this book so much, I couldn’t be more excited to share a little interview I did with Andrea and Jason! I loved getting to hear more about the author/illustrator processes and the stories behind the story and art, and you’re going to love it too! Let’s get started:
Hi Andrea and Jason! Thank you so much for joining me here at Some the Wiser to talk about Watercress. First, I want to tell you how much my children and I love the book. I love how the story is simple and yet so powerful and emotionally complex. The combination of the illustrations + text make it one of the most emotionally resonant picture books I’ve ever come across. My daughter was especially moved by the flashback sequence to China and kept saying, “I want to know more about what happened in China.” It sparked conversations about sharing difficult memories from our past, surviving hardship, and the pain of feeling different. I think it’s safe to say we really connected with Watercress. Thank you for sharing your story and your art with us!
Interview with Andrea Wang
- Can you give us some background about how Watercress came to be? I’d love to hear its origin story!
Hi Allison! Thank you so much for having us on Some the Wiser. I love hearing your daughter’s reaction to the book and how it sparked some good conversations!
I originally wrote Watercress years ago as a personal essay for adults. For reasons I couldn’t figure out, the memory of picking watercress has always haunted me. Writing has always been my way of processing my life, and after my mother passed away, I started writing essays to work through my grief. But the story didn’t work as an essay and I put it away for many years. I took it out again after I started learning how to write for children and re-wrote it as a picture book. It was too wordy, and the ending still wasn’t right, so I put it away again. Then, more years later, I read the amazing picture book A Different Pond by Bao Phi and Thi Bui and was inspired to revise Watercress once more. By this time, I had published two picture books and signed with a literary agent, so I sent the manuscript to her to see what she thought. She ended up submitting it to editors immediately, so I guess she thought it was good!
- The story is so emotional, which makes me wonder about the process of writing down and sharing such a difficult memory. The book ends on an uplifting note and I’d love to know if the process of turning this memory into a book was healing? Were you able to share Watercress with your family/parents?
As I mentioned above, writing Watercress was a very long process. When I first re-wrote it as a picture book, I found that telling the story from a third person POV gave me the distance to see that the girl character was struggling with her identity and her complicated feelings about her family. When I went to revise it yet again, I was in an emotional place where I could fully inhabit my child self and pour out her feelings onto the page as a first-person narrative. This time, I didn’t write with the reader in mind – I was writing for myself, and for the child I was. It was a very cathartic process; I cried the entire time I was typing! You’re right, it was healing to write the book. By this time, my father and maternal grandparents had also passed away, so I never got to share the book with them or my mom. But I feel like the book brought them all back to me in some fashion, so I’m really grateful for that.
- What is your favorite way to eat watercress?
My favorite way to eat watercress is the way it’s shown in the book, stir-fried with oil and garlic. So simple and yet so good! My parents actually used it to make watercress soup, which is the more popular way to eat it in China, I believe. But I’m not a fan of hot soup, so I took a little poetic license with my memories in the book. ☺
- How did you and Jason come to work together? Was it a fortuitous editorial decision, or did you seek each other out?
I think it was a brilliant, calculated decision by our editor, Neal Porter. He thought that since the story is so personal, it would be helpful for me to share more about my family’s history with Jason, so he could get a feel for the time periods as well as get into the minds of the characters. I tried to give Jason the information and photos that he asked for, without telling him what I thought the art should look like. His vision of the story absolutely blew me away.
- What are you working on next? Can you say? Anything together?
I’m excited to share that my debut middle grade novel, The Many Meanings of Meilan, comes out in August 2021 from Kokila Books. It’s also a story about a young Chinese American girl who ends up in Ohio, trying to understand where she fits into the world. My next picture book is called Luli and the Language of Tea and it publishes in 2022, also by Neal Porter Books. It’s about how the word for tea in countries all over the world stem from the Chinese word for it, and how a little Chinese girl bridges a language gap with it to make new friends. Luli will be illustrated by the wonderful artist Hyewon Yum.
I’d love to work on another book with Jason, but there are no plans for it at the moment. I’d have to write the manuscript first! In the meantime, I’m working on another middle grade novel and two nonfiction picture books that I can’t say anything about yet.
Thanks again for hosting us, Allison!
Interview with Jason Chin
- I know the story is autobiographical, but also seemed to me that there was something very personal about the illustrations too. Did you have a personal connection to the story?
The first thing I thought of when I read WATERCRESS was a story of my father’s. He is second generation Chinese-American. When he was around 6 years old, I believe, his teacher asked the class to share what they ate for breakfast that morning. He had eaten a Chinese dish of minced pork and gave the class the Chinese name for it. Of course, none of the other students knew what it was and he didn’t know how to explain. He was so embarrassed that he came home and told his mom that he didn’t want Chinese food for breakfast any more, he only wanted American food.
That was the first connection. After that I revisited memories of times when I felt like I didn’t belong or felt shame. For me not belonging wasn’t necessarily connected to race or ethnicity. When I was seven we moved to Boston, I was teased by the neighborhood kids, and I didn’t feel like I belonged. My father helped me through that episode. Another memory that I returned to was from my middle school years. One day I gave my friend the cold shoulder because I perceived that he was a drag on my social capital. He rightly called me out on it, and I felt “ashamed of being ashamed” of him, to quote one of the lines from WATERCRESS.
- Can you give us a sense of the type of research you did for the illustrations?
Depicting China in this book, was a very big challenge for me, because I was coming to it as an outsider. I have Chinese heritage and I have been to China, but I am not Chinese. I don’t have a direct connection to anyone who suffered during the famine. So I began with reading about the history, and in particular reading the testimonials of survivors of the Great Famine. This was an important part of my preparation for illustrating these scenes because it helped me to imagine what they were going through.
I wanted to set the Chinese scenes in a specific place in China because I thought it would give the book a greater degree of authenticity, and I chose a town in Sichuan Provence. There were several reasons for this. First, it was one of the areas hardest hit by famine. Second, Andrea’s mother happens to have been born in Sichuan. And finally, Sichuan is famous for its bamboo and I wanted to show bamboo in those scenes. After I settled on the location I went looking for examples of architecture, clothing and artifacts from that location. With the help of a generous librarian at the Harvard Yenching library, I located a book about traditional Sichuanese architecture. I visited a Chinese courtyard style house that is on display at the Peabody-Essex museum in Salem Massachusetts where I was able to get the feel traditional Chinese architecture as well as artifacts from the early days of the People’s Republic of China.
- What was most important to emphasize on the book jacket and book cover? (I really love when the book cover is different than the jacket!)
I usually discuss ideas for the book’s cover with my editor after the interior art is finished. We look over the artwork and often my editor will see an image that he likes and suggest doing something similar on the cover. In this case, he really liked the image of the protagonist when she’s first entering the ditch. Everyone also liked the image where the corn is merging with bamboo in the gutter, so I did a similar thing for the spine and back cover.
The separate case cover was proposed by my editor and the art director. They felt that it would be really nice for kids to have a close up of watercress. In the book interior, there aren’t any images of the plant that show it in detail. I’m really glad they suggested it, because I think it really adds to the book.
- Have you eaten watercress? If so, what is your favorite way to eat it?
I grew up eating Chinese watercress soup, and that’s the way that I like it best. I had to learn to cook it as a stir fry because that’s the way it’s eaten in the book.
- How did you and Andrea come to work together? Was it a fortuitous editorial decision, or did you seek each other out?
It was a fortuitous editorial decision. Neal Porter, our editor, really liked the manuscript and when he acquired it he asked me to illustrate it. I was a little hesitant because the manuscript was so personal. I was nervous about illustrating the author in her own book, but the manuscript was too good and I couldn’t turn it down.
Then Neal introduced Andrea and I and we were able to get to know each other a bit. On one phone call, she shared her family story and I shared mine. She also shared old family photos. I’m very glad to have had that interaction, because after talking to her I felt more comfortable helping to tell her story. I felt like I had permission to do the illustrations and that was really important.
- What are you working on next? Can you say? Anything together?
I’m working on a book about microscopic things that will be a companion to YOUR PLACE IN THE UNIVERSE. I hope that Andrea and I can work together again in the future.
Thank you Andrea and Jason! This was an absolute delight and I can’t wait to get my hands on your new books.
Get your copy of Watercress by Andrea Wang and Jason Chin here – you’re going to love it!