The Stories We Need to Ask For

April 8, 2021 § 1 Comment

Occasionally, a book comes along that is so extraordinary, I’m daunted at the prospect of reviewing it. I worry I could never do it justice. I wish I could just say, This is hands down the most moving picture book I’ve read so far this year, and I want you to get it without knowing anything about it. Maybe, if you’ve been hanging around here for awhile, you’ll do just that. But I will try and find something eloquent to say for the rest of you.

Years ago, my husband helped his grandparents—first generation Italian-Americans—pack up their house to move into a retirement community. In the crawlspace, he uncovered boxes of mementos, all of which his grandmother had at one point tied up using the elastics from her husband’s old underwear. This discovery became one the family would chuckle about for years (Who salvages underwear elastic?!). But it was also a window into the past, a resourcefulness triggered by the Great Depression sixty years earlier, a self-reliance that perhaps belied pain, worry, wanting, loss. Only now does my husband express regret at not probing for the stories underscoring something he accepted as mere frugality.

All of us grow up surrounded by family history, including the cultural heritage this history often represents. Yet, as children, we often take this history for granted. At best, we’re blinded by our own fixation on the present; at worst, we’re embarrassed by the quirks of our elders, by their old-fashioned ways, by their insistence in holding fast to ideas or customs from their past.

Especially where immigrants are concerned, this silencing is further accentuated by the systemic racism underlying American society. Asian Americans, for example, are expected to fulfill the Model Minority Myth, to work hard towards prosperity, while keeping quiet about their struggles, past or present. The recent media attention on the massive spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans—up 1,900% since the start of the pandemic—has begun to open our eyes to an experience far from new, one we should have been talking about ages ago.

In the spirit of lifting up voices of Asian descent—and because this poignant story is at its heart about the value of listening to stories of the past—I urge you to purchase Watercress (Ages 5-9), Andrea Wang’s powerful autobiographical picture book, evocatively illustrated by Caldecott Honoree Jason Chin, who studied traditional Chinese landscape painting to infuse the story with added authenticity. (If Jason Chin doesn’t get his long-overdue Caldecott Medal for this, you will hear me screaming.) Against a backdrop of 1970s rural Ohio, a girl and her brother help their parents, immigrants from China, pick watercress on the side of a ditch to be served that evening. The immediate humiliation of the act later transforms into an opportunity for the girl to connect with her mother’s past life in China—and the grief she still carries in her heart.

Told in the first person and invoking rich, poetic language on every page, Watercress opens on a faded red Pontiac—“the red paint faded by years of/ glinting Ohio sun”—in which the girl, her brother, and her parents ride along a road flanked by towering cornstalks. Right away, in addition to the distinctive red of the car (fellow children of the ‘70s, where are you?), Jason Chin establishes a palette that balances the yellow ochre of ‘70s décor with cerulean blue, a color common in traditional Chinese painting (as noted in the Illustrator Note). Even the book’s paper and printing feel perfect for this layered story of memory, the matte finish just the tiniest bit gritty and grainy.

Suddenly, the car pulls to a stop by a ditch on the side of the road—“Mom’s eyes are as sharp as/ the tip of/ a dragon’s claw”—where a patch of watercress grows wild. As the siblings look on, their parents “unearth/ a brown paper bag,/ rusty scissors,/ and a longing for/ China.” The illustrations echo this tug between the present and the past, with the cornstalks morphing into a landscape of bamboo, rendered in sepia hues like an old photograph.

The children are ordered to get out of the car, roll up their pants, and wade through ditch water to collect as much watercress as they can carry. The girl is having none of it: not only is the water cold and the mud squelchy, but every time a car goes by she worries someone will recognize her. Her brother shakes his watercress bundles in her face, teasing her with the “tiny snails/ clinging to the/ underside.” As the girl holds the soaked paper bag, she half hopes “the bottom will split,/ sending all the plants back down/ into the muck.”

That night’s dinner is a dish of watercress, “glistening with garlicky oil and/ freckled with sesame seeds.” The girl looks on resentfully. She wants to eat vegetables from the grocery store, this “dinner from a ditch” no different than the second-hand clothes she must wear, or the “roadside trash-heap furniture” her parents collect.

But then her mother shows her a family photograph “from before,” one of only a few times she has ever spoken to her daughter of “her China family.” In the photograph, standing beside her young mother, is an even smaller boy—“‘My little brother. Your uncle.’” The children hold their breaths while Mom continues.

As the mother describes a time in China during the great famine, when her family ate whatever they could find and it was still not enough, two side-by-side illustrations fill in the gaps: in one, four members of the family sit around the table; in the other, there are only three, the young boy’s stool empty, his family’s faces pinched with grief.

Now, when the girl looks at the bowl of watercress on the table, she feels not anger or resentment, but regret: “I am ashamed of/ being ashamed of/ my family.” And when she tastes it for the first time, she likens its delicate but “slightly bitter” taste to “Mom’s memories/ of home.”

And so, the girl helps her family make new memories of a food that once spoke only of poverty, grief, and survival. What doesn’t need to be said, because it’s implied so genuinely, is that perhaps this moment will pave a way for the girl to seek out more stories in her family history—and to honor them in our own budding identity.  

Watercress is an extraordinary blend of words and art, which nudges us to pose more questions—and listen harder—to those we assume we already know.

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Review copy from Holiday House All opinions are my own. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases through the links above, although I prefer we also shop local and support our communities when we can.

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