A young girl in Ohio is embarrassed to pick watercress from the side of the road with her immigrant parents. She hopes that no one they know will drive by. Once they are home, sitting at the dinner table, she refuses to eat the watercress, saying that she only wants to eat vegetables from the grocery store. Her parents are flabbergasted that anyone would reject food that is fresh and free. Any parent reading this picture book will recognize the look on the girl’s face: it is the universal refuse-to-eat-vegetables face. Mom goes into the bedroom and retrieves a photo of her family when she was a little girl in China. During the great famine, they ate whatever they could find, but it was not enough. In the picture is a pitifully thin little boy, and the girl realizes that her uncle is not alive today.
Andrea Wang won an Asian / Pacific American Award, Boston Globe / Horn Book Award, and a Newbery honor for Watercress. The mark of a great picture book is the ability to convey great meaning and emotion in a few words while keeping the book appropriate for and appealing to children. Wang does exactly that here, in a story that she confesses in her author’s note is somewhat autobiographical. In just a small amount of text, she brings her first-person narrator from anger to understanding, and her readers will have their eyes opened to the depth of their own older relatives’ experiences. Wang encourages everyone to tell their stories to their children.
Jason Chin won a Caldecott medal for this book. In his note, he says that he used misty, soft blue, green, and ochre tones as if to evoke memories, like the ones the parents have of growing up in the Chinese countryside. With just a stroke or two, he shows the girl’s anger and disgust at living differently from all of her friends and classmates. Later, her face is a picture of shame when she comes to understand her perfectly practical parents. Chin also won awards for his previous book, Grand Canyon, and his work has a distinctive and pleasing style.
Watercress is a lovely picture book for every child that will foster understanding of different cultures as well as encouraging gratitude for their blessings and honor for older people.
Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.