Heavy Medal Mock Newbery Finalist- Watercress by Andrea Wang
Introduction by Heavy Medal Award Committee member Stephanie Saggione.
In this gorgeous picture book, a brother and sister stop along the side of the road to pick watercress with their Chinese immigrant parents. We see the experience through the eyes of the sister who is annoyed by her brother, disgusted by the muddy water, and very worried that she might be seen by someone she knows. When she refuses to eat the watercress for dinner, her mother tells her about her own childhood in China; there was a famine and her family did not have enough to eat. She shows a photo of her little brother who did not survive. The main character reflects that eating the watercress now will help her mother build new, better memories.
Author Andrea Wang tells us in a note that this story was inspired by her own memories of doing this with her family. She captures the discomfort and embarrassment she felt in real life when she writes about “ducking her head” to hide from passersby, “squirming away” from the dripping plants that her brother pushes at her, and putting her “sodden self” back into the car after getting soaked. The corresponding illustrations are all painted in watercolors which give the story a gentle, soft quality. Jason Chin tells us in his artist note that he purposely chose the paint and brushes because they are common to both Chinese and Western art. His attention to detail (soft washes, cerulean blue, and yellow ochre) give the pictures a vintage feel- like a memory or dream. Readers feel transported to an earlier time to establish the mood to accompany the text. This style is appropriate to the story’s theme about memory.
Wang’s prose also stands alone as exemplary. She juxtaposes modern, familiar language about jeans, sneakers, store bought vegetables, and hand me down clothes with more unfamiliar words and images about a dragon’s claw, rusty scissors, chopsticks, and a longing for China. Figurative language adds to the lyricism of the text: “eyes as sharp as the tip of a dragon’s claw, voices heavy with memories, leaves round as coins, a boy as thin as a stem of watercress”. Alliterative phrases roll off the tongue (“sopping shirt, sodden selves, dinner from a ditch”) and more obscure phrases lend themselves to the musicality as well (“cornstalks that zigzag across the horizon, unearthing items from the depths of the trunk, garlicky oil freckled with sesame seeds, roadside trash-heap furniture”).
In this book, we clearly see the generational divide between parents and children. Wang is asking us to consider how memories affect our understanding and behavior. As a read aloud, this book works because the story is simple and easy to follow but includes a more complicated layer discovered after inferring what happened in China. This might lead to discussions about how the characters’ memories of poverty led to the life and behaviors in America today. Children will make personal connections about food traditions, immigration, and memory. This story highlights one perspective, one voice about the Chinese immigrant experience, making it an excellent contribution to American literature among the other voices and perspectives about Chinese culture on our shelves.
Heavy Medal Award Committee members and others are now invited to discuss this book further in the Comments section below. Please start with positive observations first; stick to positives until at least three comments have been posted or we reach 1:00 pm EST. Let the Mock Newbery discussion begin!
About Emily Mroczek-Bayci
Emily Mroczek (Bayci) is a freelance children’s librarian in the Chicago suburbs. She served on the 2019 Newbery committee. You can reach her at email@example.com.
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