Andrea Wang, author of The Nian Monster and Magic Ramen: The Story of Momofuku Ando, holds an M.S. in environmental science and an M.F.A. in creative writing for young people. Wang’s new picture book, Watercress, illustrated by Jason Chin, is inspired by her experience growing up in rural Ohio as a child of Chinese immigrants. Chin is the Caldecott Honoree, Sibert Honoree, and NCTE Orbis Pictus Award-winning author-illustrator of Grand Canyon. He is also the creator of Your Place in the Universe, as well as other acclaimed nonfiction titles, including Coral Reefs, Redwoods, Gravity, and Island: A Story of the Galapagos. We asked Wang and Chin to interview each other about their collaborative process and their personal connections to Watercress.
Andrea Wang: Hi, Jason! I just discovered that both of us started out doing books about the Chinese New Year, which I think is a fun coincidence. But yours was nonfiction and since then you’ve mainly written and/or illustrated nonfiction books. What made you decide to take on an emotionally heavy book like Watercress? Did your Dad talk you into it? :)
Jason Chin: Yes, my first illustrated book was Chinese New Year by Judith Jango-Cohen, and I actually illustrated the Nian monster in it, which, for anyone who doesn’t know, was the title of your first book.
I took on Watercress because it was so good and I couldn’t say no. I was a little afraid to do it because it was heavy and because it was autobiographical—especially because it was autobiographical. I always feel a great responsibility to the author when I illustrate a book, but I was especially anxious because I was basically illustrating you as a child. But a text like this doesn’t come along very often, so I just had to do it.
I am very glad that we had the chance to talk early in the process. It was good for me to hear about your family’s story for a lot of reasons. At the time we spoke I was trying to get into the mindset of the characters and hearing your stories really helped. After those discussions I felt much more comfortable, like I had permission to do the job. Although it’s only in retrospect that I would describe it that way. At the time, I just knew I felt more at ease and that was really important.
I have a related question for you. I remember you telling me that Watercress was originally written for adults and was much longer. What made you choose to adapt such an emotionally heavy story into a picture book text?
Wang: Even for a writer, a text like this doesn’t often happen. Watercress in its final form took me years to write. My first attempt was in the form of a personal essay for adults. My parents had both gotten sick and after my mom passed, I wrote a series of essays—my way of grappling with grief and conflicting emotions. But the watercress piece wasn’t particularly emotional, because I couldn’t figure out what the memory meant—not just within the small confines of my life, but also in the larger scheme of things. It was just this scene that I couldn’t stop thinking about.
Later, after I had kids and started taking classes in writing for children, I was inspired to turn the memory into a fiction picture book. The story was told in third person and the girl character had a different name than mine. That gave me some needed distance and I was able to explore the girl’s embarrassment and feelings of not belonging because it wasn’t happening to me—at least, not on the page. But I still couldn’t find the heart of the story. It wasn’t until years later, with a better understanding of what my parents had gone through during the Chinese civil war, that I was able to find the connections between our lives and rewrite the manuscript from a first-person POV. I was able to incorporate more about memory and loss, both my own and my parents’. That’s when Watercress became emotionally heavy, when I realized how ashamed I’d been of my own family and how guilty I still felt about it.
I’m relieved to hear that telling you about my family helped you feel less anxious about illustrating Watercress. I didn’t know what kind of info you were looking for and worried later that I blathered on for too long about my parents. And then I inundated you with random family photos. You had asked me for photos of Ohio during that time period (the late 1970s, for anyone who’s curious), and I went through boxes and boxes of old photographs looking for ones that might be relevant. It was harder than I expected—all the photos were so carefully composed back then, because my parents didn’t want to waste film. Cornfields and roadside ditches didn’t fit their idea of a beautiful backdrop! You did a stellar job depicting the landscape and the characters, I have to say. Even though they don’t look exactly like me and my family (which I think you told me was a deliberate decision and one I’m happy about), you captured our personalities perfectly.
I really enjoyed collaborating with you but was wary of imposing any of my ideas. I wanted you to be able to express your vision of the story. I didn’t really have to do any research except to mine my memories, but you did a huge amount. Was the research process for Watercress different from your process for your other books?
Chin: I’m glad to hear that the Ohio scenes ring true. I can’t remember if I mentioned this to you, but between the ages of two and six I lived in Michigan and occasionally we visited Ohio. Some of my earliest memories are from the Midwest and the photos you shared felt oddly familiar.
The research process was different from my other books because the subject was different. I am normally researching science and trying to learn the concepts and facts that will help the reader connect with the subject. For this book, I had to learn about culture and history so that the images would be accurate, but also so I could get to know where these characters were from and who they were.
For the American characters and scenes, I felt comfortable drawing from my own experiences. I’m American and I made those parts of the story from the perspective of an insider. Details like the CorningWare bowl that the watercress is served in were pulled from my own life. When the mother goes to get the family photograph, the father looks at his bowl and buries his feelings. I knew right away that that’s how he would react, because that’s how both my father and I would react.
But the scenes of China were more difficult, because I was illustrating as an outsider and I had to do a lot more research to be able to make informed images. I started by reading and watching testimonies of survivors of the great famine. It was gut-wrenching, but it helped me begin to imagine the family’s experience.
I spent more time than anything else doing visual research for the architecture, décor, and clothing for the three images set in China. This is where your suggestion to visit the Yin Yu Tang House at the Peabody Essex Museum and the Yenching Library at Harvard really helped. At the Yenching Library the librarian, Mr. Ma, was incredibly helpful. He pulled about two dozen books for me. Most were in Chinese and I never would have found them on my own, and one was exactly what I was looking for: a book from the 1980s on traditional Sichuanese architecture that was full of photos. These photos were critical reference material, because they included interiors of siheyuan, or courtyard houses, and were taken before China began to quickly modernize. At Yin Yu Tang, I was able to stand in a real courtyard house and get a sense of the space and the light. Even though the house was from a different region, it helped give context to the photos. I also picked up on quite a few objects that made their way into the illustrations, like the thermos on the table and the poster on the wall.
While I was working on it, I showed the book dummy to as many Chinese and Chinese American people as I could. I wanted to get as many knowledgeable eyes on it as possible and it was really helpful to have their perspective. Several people who were second-generation Chinese immigrants shared stories of being embarrassed of their parents’ attitudes to food and foraging. It seems these stories are more common than I realized. Have you heard similar stories from friends or readers?
Wang: Thank you to Mr. Ma! Librarians are crucial—not just in getting books into the hands of readers, but in the creation of the books themselves. All your research added so much depth and richness to the illustrations, and to the book itself. I love the details—especially the thermos, which feels like such a cultural touchstone to me. My father always carried around a thermos of hot tea, no matter where he went. And I’m pretty sure I didn’t send you any photos of my father in a short-sleeved, striped polyester shirt, but you totally nailed that, too.
That’s wonderful to hear that Watercress resonated with the Chinese and Chinese American people you showed it to. I actually have been hearing more stories about foraging from people—some whose parents did it, others for whom it was a family activity like in the book, and still others who were sent out by themselves. That last group, though, usually were sent to gather food that wasn’t technically, um, growing in the wild. I think the theory being that kids would be forgiven more readily.
Recently, illustrator Jax Chow emailed to tell me about how her parents, Taiwanese immigrants, used to pick loquats from trees in the parking lot of a strip mall. Jax wrote, “In our majority white suburb in Jacksonville, Florida, my teenage self was mortified. My grown-up self recognizes how that fruit must have reconnected my parents to a world they missed.” That realization is one of the things I hope young readers take away from Watercress—that their parents had lives before they were born and deserve empathy and understanding.
Another thing I learned was that watercress-picking was actually a fairly common practice in some states. My aunt-in-law recalled that her older brother used to pick watercress in Missouri, and taught her husband to collect it, too. It wasn’t just immigrants, either—I mentioned the premise of the book to a group of teachers last year and several came up afterwards to tell me that their families used to pick watercress, too. And that a town in Alabama used to be known as “The Watercress Capital of the World!” Now, watercress is farmed and sold in grocery stores, which makes the adult me very happy.
You mentioned once that you spent time in China. Did that inform how you approached the scenes of China or the art techniques that you used?
Chin: I’ve been to China several times, including in college when I studied abroad in Beijing. On that trip I took an introductory class in Chinese calligraphy and painting, and many of the things I learned influenced my approach to art. One idea that influenced me was that the goal of the artist was not visual fidelity, but the expression of the inner spirit of the subject. In one essay, a painter was praised for a painting of bamboo. It was written that he didn’t just paint bamboo, but he became the bamboo when he painted, and in this way he was able to manifest the essence of bamboo on the paper. Surprisingly, this idea was familiar to me.
My mentor, the American illustrator Trina Schart Hyman, was emotionally invested in the characters in her books. I think they were real to her the way that an actor becomes a character for a time while on stage, and her illustrations are brimming with vitality. So here was this idea being practiced by different artists, from different traditions, on opposite sides of the globe. That really resonated with me. Through research and imagination, I try my best to develop a deep understanding of the people, animals, and places that I’m depicting, in the hopes that their inner spirit comes through in the art. For example, in Watercress, I did a series of paintings of cornfields to prepare, hoping that I could better capture the character of corn in the illustrations.
As far as techniques go, I pulled out my old books of Chinese art to study and I tried to incorporate some aesthetic elements from Chinese painting. Chinese painters use soft edges and empty, or nearly empty space, to convey expansive distance. I’ve always felt this gives their paintings a dreamlike quality. I incorporated many soft washes and empty spaces in my paintings to represent the theme of memory that runs throughout the story. Chinese paintings are created with linear brushstrokes and I really like the expressiveness of the brush. My paintings are not linear, but for this book I looked for opportunities to make the brush strokes visible. This is most apparent in the dry-brush marks in the vegetation. Many of the marks were made with Chinese brushes, because their strokes have more personality to my eye. My thought was that the combination of Chinese and Western brushes, with their different characters, might make the art a kind of visual blending of culture.
We talked several times about your family story, but I don’t remember asking you if you have spent time in China. Have you ever visited the area where your mother’s family is from?
Wang: I love that idea—to understand and embody something so well that their inner spirit is expressed in the art. Like method acting, but with paint.
I’ve been to mainland China several times to visit my in-laws, but unfortunately never got to visit the “ancestral seat” of my mom’s family. Both of my maternal grandparents were from a town called Danshui in Guangdong Province and were part of a Chinese ethnic group called the Hakka. They were high school sweethearts and got married at 19. My grandfather joined the Nationalist military and they moved around a lot. Each of their six children was born in a different province! Actually, their youngest child, my surviving uncle, was born in Taiwan after the rest of the family fled there at the end of the civil war. My mom was born in Chengdu, Sichuan Province—I’d love to visit someday, although I’m not sure I’ll be able to handle the spicy food there! My younger son, on the other hand, loves super spicy Sichuan food.
Okay, now that I’m on the subject of food (one of my favorite things to talk—and write—about), I have to ask: have you eaten watercress and do you like it? Also, do you have any strong food memories?
Chin: I’m glad we’re finally talking about food! It’s funny, when talking about this book I’ve [spoken] a lot about the Great Famine and Chinese art, but very little about watercress! I love watercress. My favorite recipe is watercress soup made with ginger, broth, watercress, and tofu. It’s so simple and just right.
As for childhood memories of food, I have fond memories of the char-siu bao (buns with pork filling) that my parents would make every New Year. When I was young, around three years old, they made a whole batch for a New Year party and apparently I kept going up to the basket and taking bites out of the buns, then putting them back. When the party started all the bao had little bites taken out of them. I think I was looking for one with a lot of filling and I kept getting bites of dough.
Another food memory that stands out is about dan tat, or egg pastry. On my seventh birthday, my parents decided to bring dan tat into my class to celebrate, instead of cake or cupcakes. It went pretty well. The treats were new to everyone, but I think they enjoyed them. My parents were always looking for opportunities to share Chinese culture with my friends and with our community. They always cooked Chinese food at the church pot-luck, and invited my friends’ families to our Chinese New Year parties. I was too young to know it, but I realize now that they were doing this in part to protect me and my brother. By inviting outsiders to participate in Chinese culture through food, they were taking the mystery and foreignness out of it. They normalized it for our friends and I don’t think my brother and I felt as much like outsiders because of it.
My parents shared our culture by sharing our food, but that reminds me of what you wrote in the author’s note about the importance of sharing stories both good and bad. Of course you were writing about sharing family history, but I see a similarity. Our food was part of our family’s story, if you will, and sharing it was an act of inviting outsiders to be a part of our story. Do you think there is a connection here, or is this a stretch? Is there anything else about the importance of sharing stories that you’d like to elaborate on?
Wang: Ha! I can just see toddler you taking bites out of every bao. That’s such a wonderful way to describe your parents’ hospitality—that by sharing their food and culture, they were sharing your family’s history. I definitely think there’s a connection. I love writing about food because food brings people together across generational and cultural divides. Sharing food builds community. The same could be said of sharing stories.
I wrote Watercress mainly for the kid I was. Kids know that life isn’t always easy. Life is hard. Tragedies happen. This is particularly true of the past year. We all want our children, our students, to be happy, and the temptation is to only give them the fun books, to share only the sweet family stories. But avoiding the tough topics does them a disservice—I think it gives children the message that they shouldn’t talk about the sad things or the negative emotions, that they should hide these parts of themselves, which isn’t healthy. Sharing difficult stories gives them a way to process their feelings and the words to talk about them. It can inspire a new understanding of each other, like the girl and her mother in the book. In addition to the guilt and grief in the story, there is also redemption and hope and love. Those are the things we need to look for to get us through the difficult times.
Watercress by Andrea Wang, illus. by Jason Chin. Holiday House/Porter, $18.99 Mar. 30 ISBN 978-0-8234-4624-7