A young girl is driving in Ohio with her parents when they spot watercress growing by the side of the road. The mom shouts "Look!" and they stop the car.
"They haul us out of the back seat. We are told to untie our sneakers, peel off our socks, and roll up our jeans. We have to help them gather it."
Watercress is written by Andrea Wang and illustrated by Jason Chin. And it's based on the author's childhood.
"My parents actually did spot watercress growing by the side of the road in rural Ohio where I grew up," Wang says. "And I was horribly embarrassed ... 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 my peers."
But for her parents — it brought back memories of home.
"For them it was this connection to a place that they had left and could never get back to," Wang says.
Jason Chin says he immediately related to the emotions in this story.
"The themes are universal. The themes of being ashamed of your parents, I think. We've probably all experienced that at some point," he says. "You know, I remember walking 20 feet behind my parents when we were walking down the street, pretending that I didn't belong to them."
To illustrate Watercress, Chin drew inspiration from Chinese landscape paintings.
"Which often have mountains shrouded in clouds and mist," he explains. "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."
Chin chose brighter yellows for Ohio in the 1970s — when Wang was growing up — and a more somber color scheme for the China of her parents' memories.
Somber because — when the family returns home for dinner, the young girl sits at the table, arms crossed, frown on her face, and refuses to eat the foraged watercress. Until her mom brings out an old picture of the girl's uncle, who died during the great famine.
This story, too, comes from Wang's family history.
"My mother was the eldest of six siblings," Wang says. "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, he's based on my mother's younger brother, who did not survive."
Unlike the little girl in her story, Andrea Wang didn't hear that kind of story about her parents' childhoods in China until she was an adult.
"My parents were trying to protect me, by not telling me those stories of the hardships they went through," Wang says. "And I think in some part they were trying to protect themselves, because they didn't want to relive their trauma."
But as a kid, Wang remembers feeling disconnected from her history — "unmoored." Her greatest hope for Watercress is that it inspires families to have these difficult conversations.
"I think it's really important for families to share what they can," she says. "So that kids know that history and can feel a sense of pride in their culture. No matter where they're from."
Samantha Balaban and Melissa Gray produced and edited this interview for broadcast.
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." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.