With Earth Day approaching, I had planned to review a picture book with a more overtly environmental theme. But when I read today’s picture book, I had to share it straight away. And as I mention below, there is an environmental theme if you look for it, one of the many layers of this Perfect Picture Book.
Written By: Andrea Wang
Illustrated By: Jason Chin
Publisher/Date: Neal Porter Books, a division of Holiday House/2021
Suitable for Ages: 4-8
Themes/Topics: immigrants, Asian-Americans, family, memories, family history
We are in the old Pontiac, the red paint faded by years of glinting Ohio sun, pelting rain, and biting snow.
Brief Synopsis: Picking watercress for dinner becomes an opportunity to share some difficult family history.
Links to Resources:
- Ask a parent, grandparent, or other adult to share a happy or sad memory from their childhood;
- The family in Watercress prepares and eats sauteed watercress with garlic. Ask an adult to help you prepare a similar dish (note, fresh watercress is now available in some grocery stores);
- Food and scent often bring back memories. Draw a picture of a happy time when you ate a favorite food.
Why I Like this Book:
In this gorgeous new picture book based on an incident from Andrea Wang’s childhood, an unnamed narrator recounts an afternoon when she unhappily helped her immigrant parents pick watercress by the side of a rural Ohio roadway. Wang sprinkles the text with descriptive adjectives such as “biting”, “abrupt”, “jerking”, “rusty”, and “dirty” that show the narrator’s distaste for the task and embarrassment that her family gathers food, rather than visiting a grocery store, as the narrator’s classmates do. But when the narrator’s mother recounts a difficult period from her past in China, the narrator tries the foraged watercress and realizes it is “delicate and slightly bitter”, much like her mother’s memories of China.
Reading Watercress will help children of immigrants, and other children, too, better understand the hardships their parents may have endured. With its Asian-American main character, reading and discussing Watercress is a wonderful way to encourage empathy for people of Asian descent. And as someone who grew up in a family in which money was often tight, Wang’s discussion of hand-me-down clothes, “roadside trash-heap furniture”, and “dinner from a ditch” resonated with me. I think it will resonate with children in households dealing with financial issues today, too.
Finally, the discussion of famine in China when the narrator’s parents were young may help children realize that climate change and its effect on weather systems and crop yields can affect some regions disproportionately. Perhaps this will lead to greater understanding of climate migration and empathy for those most affected by climate change.
Chin’s soft, earth-hued illustrations are gorgeous and wonderfully detailed. Interweaving scenes of China with scenes from the narrator’s life adds so much to the reader’s understanding of why foraging for watercress may not be as bad as the narrator first portrays it.
A Note about Craft:
In a note from the author, Wang reveals that Watercress is based on a childhood memory. Although the story is fiction and although Wang’s mother did not share her sad memories of life in China with Wang as a child, it’s clear that the feeling of being different is very real for Wang, and because of that, I think she is able to convey that very effectively.
Although not poetry per se, Wang uses very lyrical and emotion-filled language – Wang truly writes from the heart! Using first person point-of-view, it’s clear that the unnamed narrator views picking watercress as an unpleasant task, and she clearly is embarrassed by her heritage and ashamed of her family’s situation until she realizes what they’ve endured to survive.
This Perfect Picture Book entry is being added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Book list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!