Watercress by Andrea Wang

Watercress by Andrea Wang
Publisher: Neal Porter Books
Genre: Children’s (0 – 6 y.o.), Middle Grade (8 – 12 y.o.), Contemporary
Rating: 5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Gathering watercress by the side of the road brings a girl closer to her family’s Chinese Heritage.

A Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Book

Driving through Ohio in an old Pontiac, a young girl’s parents stop suddenly when they spot watercress growing wild in a ditch by the side of the road. Grabbing an old paper bag and some rusty scissors, the whole family wades into the muck to collect as much of the muddy, snail covered watercress as they can.

At first, she’s embarrassed. Why can’t her family get food from the grocery store? But when her mother shares a story of her family’s time in China, the girl learns to appreciate the fresh food they foraged. Together, they make a new memory of watercress.

Andrea Wang tells a moving autobiographical story of a child of immigrants discovering and connecting with her heritage, illustrated by award winning author and artist Jason Chin, working in an entirely new style, inspired by Chinese painting techniques. An author’s note in the back shares Andrea’s childhood experience with her parents.

Some memories should never be forgotten.

This picture book couldn’t have done a better job at discussing difficult subjects with children from a wide range of ages. Each scene included information that could be interpreted in multiple ways depending on the age of the reader and how much they’d already figured out about the main character’s family. All of these interpretations were equally true. I loved the fact that some of them were softened a little for younger audiences who might not be ready for every single detail of the past yet.

Ms. Wang packed an exquisite amount of detail into every scene, from the sharp sting of cold water as the main character stepped into a puddle to gather watercress to the moment she learned the story behind why her parents insisted on performing this ritual every time they spotted free food growing in a ditch on the side of the road. I was so mesmerized by the plot that I felt as though I were experiencing it alongside this family. The author couldn’t have done a more thorough job of drawing the audience into the mixed emotions that were soon to flood her characters’ minds as they dove into topics they had never felt brave enough to talk about with each other before.

While I can’t mention the specific things the characters discussed without giving away spoilers, I can say I was pleased with the hopeful ending. The plot was so serious and sad earlier on that I wondered how the author was planning to wrap everything up, especially since this tale does have some autobiographical elements to it even if they were fictionalized. I thought she did a wonderful job of balancing out the truth of the past with reassuring kids about how much the meaning of something small and seemingly ordinary can change over the course of time. It’s as important to understand the sometimes heavy weight of history as it is to remember that the future is still unwritten!

Watercress is a must-read for any family who is interested in finding empathic ways to explain tough topics to their youngest members.

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