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

Illustrations © 2021 by Jason Chin / Holiday House Publishing

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.

/ Illustrations © 2021 by Jason Chin / Holiday House Publishing
Illustrations © 2021 by Jason Chin / Holiday House Publishing

"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.

/ Illustrations © 2021 by Jason Chin / Holiday House Publishing
Illustrations © 2021 by Jason Chin / Holiday House Publishing

"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.

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Samantha Balaban
Samantha Balaban is producer at Weekend Edition.