In 'Watercress,' A Little Girl Learns To Appreciate Her Family's History A little girl is initially ashamed when her immigrant parents stop the car to forage for watercress by the side of the road — until she learns more about her family's history in China.
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Embarrassed By Your Parents? 'Watercress' Explores That Universal Kid Experience

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Embarrassed By Your Parents? 'Watercress' Explores That Universal Kid Experience

Embarrassed By Your Parents? 'Watercress' Explores That Universal Kid Experience

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

In the children's picture book "Watercress," a young girl is driving with her parents when they spot watercress growing by the side of the road. The parents, who are Chinese immigrants, make the whole family stop and get out to gather the vegetable. The story is based on author Andrea Wang's childhood.

ANDREA WANG: My parents actually did spot watercress growing by the side of the road in rural Ohio where I grew up and did actually make us all go out and get it. And I was horribly embarrassed, as it says in the book, for me to have to get out and gather food from this muddy ditch - really just made me aware of how different I was from, you know, my peers.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "Watercress" is illustrated by Caldecott honor recipient Jason Chin, who says he almost was too intimidated to take the job.

JASON CHIN: I was pretty nervous about doing it because it's autobiographical, and I would be illustrating Andrea in her own story, and that made me nervous. Luckily, our editor introduced us, and we got to meet and talk to each other. And we shared stories. And being able to talk to Andrea and hear directly, like, how she felt when she was in these moments helped me to imagine myself in those positions, which is what I wanted to do an honest job illustrating these characters.

WANG: I just tried to sit back and answer Jason's questions. Jason would ask me about details, like what the food on the dinner table would look like, or - I think we talked about clothes that the kids were wearing at one point. And I said that they probably wouldn't be able to afford clothes that had sports logos on them. And I think he totally nailed the clothing of the '70s. We didn't talk about the father's shirt, but my father had those same striped polyester shirts (laughter). So that was fun.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: On one page, there are parents - the dad in that polyester shirt - rooting around in the trunk of a dusty red car. From the depths of the trunk, Wang writes, they unearth a brown paper bag, rusty scissors and a longing for China. And on the next page, the parents are little kids, back home among the watercress on a hill outside their village.

WANG: It wasn't something that you could buy in the grocery stores back then. I mean, now they sell it in Trader Joe's, but you couldn't find watercress anywhere. And so for them, it was this connection to a place that they had left and could never get back to.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The story Andrea Wang wrote moves back and forth between the Ohio of the 1970s where she grew up and China in the 1950s and '60s where her parents did. To illustrate it, Jason Chin used watercolors in two different palettes.

CHIN: I was looking at Chinese landscape paintings, which often have mountains shrouded in clouds and mist. And the painters used soft edges to create this effect. And it always has felt dreamlike to me when I look at those paintings, and I thought that that aesthetic would be nice to bring into the illustrations for "Watercress" because of this theme of memory in the book. And I tried to capture the feeling of both places. The color palette in the book features a lot of yellow in Ohio because of the reference to the hot sun that Andrea wrote about. In the scenes of China, I made the palette more muted - more of a sepia tone to indicate that we were going into the past. It's also a more somber part of the story.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Somber because when the young girl is still so embarrassed that she refuses to eat the foraged watercress at dinner, her mom brings out an old picture of the girl's uncle.

WANG: My mother was the eldest of six siblings, and she grew up at a time that was turbulent in China. There was a lot of poverty and hunger and famine. And the uncle character - I mean, he's based on my mother's younger brother, who did not survive.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The little girl in Wang's book says this. I look from my uncle's hollow face to the watercress on the table, and I am ashamed of being ashamed of my family.

CHIN: This was Andrea's specific story, but the themes are universal - the themes of being ashamed of your parents. I think we've probably all experienced that at some point. You know, I remember walking, like, 20 feet behind my parents when we were walking down the street, like, pretending that I didn't belong to them, you know? One of the first things I thought about was actually not my own experience. It was my father's experience because he is a second-generation Chinese American, and he didn't want to eat Chinese food because it embarrassed him. You know, he said to his mom, you know, no more Chinese food. I want cereal (laughter). I had that experience, like, knowing that story of his. Doing this book, he has shared more stories with me about growing up. It's been good to hear more - more details.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Unlike Jason Chin, Andrea Wang did not grow up hearing her parents' stories. She hopes this book will inspire families to talk more about their past.

WANG: Growing up, not knowing my parents' memories, their history, their childhood really sort of left me feeling unmoored, and I think it's really important for families to share what they can and are comfortable with of their family backgrounds just so that kids know that history and can feel a sense of pride in their culture and their heritage no matter where they're from.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was author Andrea Wang and illustrator Jason Chin talking about their children's book, "Watercress."

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