Little White Duck
Autobiography (or memoir) is not recognized very often by the Newbery committee.
26 FAIRMOUNT AVENUE BY Tomie DePaola (2000 Newbery Honor)
I didn’t always live in the house at 26 Fairmount Avenue. We moved there when I was five years old. I know that because in 1938, when I was still four, a big hurricane hit Meriden, Connecticut, where we lived. We had just started to build our first and only house, when people told my mom and dad that the house was twisting and turning on its foundation, just like Dorothy’s house in The Wizard of Oz. A real hurricane had never reached all the way up to New England before, so nobody was ready for it.
HOMESICK: MY OWN STORY by Jean Fritz (1983 Newbery Honor)
In my father’s study there was a large globe with all the countries of the world running around it. I could put my finger on the exact spot where I was and had been ever since I’d been born. And I was on the wrong side of the globe. I was in China in a city named Hankow, a dot on a crooked line that seemed to break the country right in two. The line was really the Yangtse River, but who would know by looking at a map what the Yangtse River really was?
Hello, that’s me, Na, in the picture on the left. I was born in Zhifang, a suburb of Wuhan, China, in 1973. Wuhan is a very large city near the center of the country, next to the famous Chang River (Yangtze).
In fact, the river goes right through the city, like this . . .
Liu is my family name. Na is my given name. In China the family name comes first: Liu Na
But children in China are hardly ever called by their real names. All children are given nicknames. The tradition began thousands of years ago, because it was thought that bad luck and spirits couldn’t find you if your true name was never spoken out loud.
So everyone in Wuhan calls me Qin. It means piano.
After my little sister was born, my nickname changed to Da Qin (Big Piano) and my sister’s was Xiao Qin (Little Piano).
I think my life in China was pretty ordinary . . .
I find that the prose in LITTLE WHITE DUCK (both the dialogue and description) is of the same caliber as the autobiographical writing in the Newbery canon. More recently, the Sibert Medal has recognized autobiography/memor (PEDRO AND ME, MY SEASON WITH PENGUINS, HOLE IN MY LIFE, THE WALL, DRAWING FROM MEMORY), most of them with a strong visual component, so I’m hoping that we see this book recognized by the Sibert committee, at the very least.
This is not an autobiography/memoir in the traditional sense of the word because it’s not a linear narrative. Rather, it’s an impressionistic collection of episodes, something that also falls, more or less, into the genre of short stories, another rarely recognized genre: A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO (1999), THE DARK THIRTY (1993), IN THE BEGINNING (1989), THE WISH GIVER (1983), and GRAVEN IMAGES (1982).
Why do I find this one of the more distinguished contributions to children’s literature? It’s the most distinguished graphic novel of the year for children, but it’s also–with the possible exception of TWELVE KINDS OF ICE–the best autobiography, the best short story collection, and the best transitional chapter book. That alone, for me, gets it’s foot in the door.
But beyond that, I admire the structure of the plot, a loose collection of precisely observed autobiographical incidents (with one Chinese folktale retelling). The table of contents lists an introduction and eight chapters, but additionally there are often brief interludes that easy the segue from one to another, expanding and clarifying in important ways.
I’m also impressed by the portrayal of universal experiences through very specific ones. The first chapter, for example, recalls the death of Mao Zedong. While we cannot necessarily relate to the grief this family feels for his passing, each generation of Americans has their own where-were-you-moment that is etched indelibly into their collective consciousness. Where were you when Pearl Harbor was bombed? Where were you when Kennedy was shot? Where were when the planes hit the twin towers?
Another one is “Don’t Waste Your Food–Children in China Are Starving” in which the mother tries to get her daughters to eat all of the food on their plate. I think some parents will say anything to get their children to eat, and I think reminders of starving children worldwide are not beneath many desperate American parents. We might recognize this as a similar ploy, perhaps grounded in truth but exaggerated slightly. The irony here, of course, is that the mother goes on to relate the family’s experience of the Great Chinese Famine, and when the girls see how much hard work harvesting rice really is, the gain a greater appreciation for their food.
These experiences, related through the eyes of a young girl too naive to understand their greater political context, do not become history lessons as much as they become instead windows into another culture and mirrors of our shared humanity. It is precisely this kind of resonance for these incidents that make this such a special book–and they are, for me, what move this book from “getting a foot in the door” to “opening it wide” and possibly “walking through it.”
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About Jonathan Hunt
Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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