“It was a set-up!” says Watercress illustrator Jason Chin. Last Friday, Holiday House v-p of marketing Terry Borzumato-Greenberg gave him a call. “She said, ‘Our editor Neal Porter is giving a presentation to some librarians on Saturday night. Can you be available to pop in and present the art you’re working on? He wants to talk about the process.’ ” Librarians work odd hours, Chin thought: “Saturday night at 5:30—this is a normal time for a meeting?” But he indulged his publisher. “I asked, ‘What do I have to prepare?’ and she said, ‘Oh, don’t do much, just look for artwork to hold up.’ ”

Chin organized his studio and joined the Zoom call at the appointed hour. “I wanted to show a particular sketch, so I was rummaging around in a pile of sketchbooks under my desk as the call started,” he says. “I was thinking, ‘They’ll tell me when I need to be on.’ ” When he emerged, he recognized the members of the Caldecott Medal selection committee on the screen. Chairperson Claudette McLinn officially announced his award. “It’s all on video,” Chin says, laughing in the self-conscious way one does after a big surprise.

Watercress, a semi-autobiographical story by Andrea Wang, pictures a Chinese American girl and her family in 1970s Ohio. While driving through golden late-summer cornfields in their faded red Pontiac, they pull over to pick wild watercress in a muddy roadside ditch. Back home, they prepare the watercress with garlic and sesame. The girl rejects the greens, which she associates with free meals and secondhand clothes, until her parents share powerful memories of harvesting watercress in China.

To capture the naturalistic hues in his watercolors, Chin did visual research on cornfields and recalled moments from childhood. “We lived in Michigan, and the scene of the protagonist in the backseat of the car is a distinct memory of mine, of looking out and up, not being able to see fully out of the window,” he says. “The starting place in that creative journey was the red car,” and red details recur in the girl’s T-shirt and her mother’s barrette. Straw-toned Pyrex dishware and a sunny ochre table in the family’s home convey warmth and add a Kodachrome glow: “Sometimes I don’t have an immediate instinct for one color over another, but in this case I was confident about the yellow table with the yellow Pyrex,” Chin says.

“When I delivered the artwork, I had been living with the pictures very closely for months,” he recalls. “When the book came back [with complete layout], it felt so gratifying. A lot of times I write and illustrate, and get to see it all together from the start. But in this case I feel the text elevates my artwork.”

As Chin basks in his Caldecott success, he feels “excited and thrilled” that author Andrea Wang received a Newbery Honor for Watercress too. (ALA’s dual recognition recalls 2016, when Matt de la Peña won the Newbery and Christian Robinson snagged a Caldecott Honor for Last Stop on Market Street.) “I know the Caldecott goes to the illustrator, but the book wouldn’t be here without her,” Chin says. “This book was a real collaboration.” (See our In Conversation with the two creators.)

Together, Wang and Chin earned the 2022 Asian/Pacific American Award for Watercress, and Chin is adamant that this not be “overshadowed” by household-name recognitions. “I’m so grateful to that committee and to the work they do to promote Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in children’s literature,” he says. “It is a real honor.” Wang and Chin also received a 2021 Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor for Watercress; Chin won a 2018 Caldecott Honor and Sibert Informational Book Honor for Grand Canyon (Roaring Brook/Porter).

Chin hopes that readers will grow curious about the childhood memories and the immigrant history behind Watercress. “The best thing that an award can do is get a book in the hands of more readers,” he says. “That’s what you want as an artist, as an author, and—wow—so many people are going to experience what we’ve made.”

He cannot yet say how this spotlight will influence him as an artist, although he is relieved to have completed a forthcoming title, The Universe in You, also for Porter at Holiday House: “Thankfully that book is handed in—I’m not trying to make the cover for it with this in the back of my mind!” he says. The Universe in You, which “zooms into the smallest things we know of” in microbiology, mirrors his earlier book Your Place in the Universe, which showed the scale of astronomical distances. For his next project, still in the planning stages, Chin will illustrate a nonfiction manuscript about a blue whale.

At the moment, though, he is getting used to his new identity as a Caldecott Medalist. “The book hasn’t changed,” he reflects. “I was proud of it before. Now it’s the book, the Caldecott book, and it’s getting all this attention. It is kind of a surreal experience.”