Q: What inspired you to write Watercress?
A: Writing has always been how I process the events in my life. After my mother passed away, I started writing personal essays to work through my grief.
One memory that I kept returning to was the experience of picking watercress with my family. I wasn’t sure why it figured so largely in my psyche, so I wrote about it.
Over many years, the piece morphed from a personal essay to a picture book, from nonfiction to fiction and finally, to the semi-autobiographical story that it is today.
Looking back, I think I was exploring my relationship with my parents, especially my mother. The experience of picking watercress and having her share her childhood stories with me (albeit much later) gave me a lens through which I could view the incredible impact she had on me.
Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, "Wang’s moving poetry paired with—and precisely laid out on—[illustrator Jason] Chin’s masterfully detailed illustrations capture both an authentic Midwestern American landscape and a very Chinese American family, together infusing a single event with multiple layers laden with emotion, memory, and significance." What do you think of that description?
A: I think that’s a wonderful description! Jason Chin’s amazing paintings added so much depth to the book.
After I wrote the manuscript for Watercress, I had no idea if it could be a picture book. The main character’s journey was so interior and emotional – how would an artist show her transformation from shame and humiliation to awareness and hope? Jason captured the facial expressions and body language so precisely.
There were also layers of memories in the story, from my own memory that inspired the book, to the girl’s memory of being laughed at, and finally to the mother character’s memory of her own childhood in China. How could those memories be conveyed through the illustrations?
The way that Jason used different color palettes and painting styles to convey past and present, Ohio and China, is absolutely masterful, like the review says.
In addition to what I mentioned about depth and emotion, Jason’s art adds authenticity and a sense of place to the story. He did a huge amount of research, and it shows – the illustrations are filled with details that are accurate to the places and time periods in the story, from the clothing down to the Corningware on the dining table in Ohio and the thermos on the table in China.
I am just in awe of his ability and what he was able to achieve in the illustrations.
Q: What do you hope kids take away from the book?
A: I hope that Watercress shows all children, especially if they’re from different cultures or marginalized communities, that they do belong, and they can take pride in their heritage.
I also think it’s important to show kids that they are not alone – that everyone feels different or like they don’t fit in at some point in their lives. We are all human, with our own stories and perspectives, but if we talk to each other, we can find connections between our lives.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m excited to share that my debut middle grade novel, The Many Meanings of Meilan, comes out on August 17, 2021 from Kokila/Penguin Young Readers.
Like Watercress, Meilan is also a story about a young Chinese American girl who ends up in Ohio, trying to understand where she fits into the world.
My next picture book is called Luli and the Language of Tea and it publishes in 2022 from Neal Porter Books/Holiday House. It’s about how the word for tea in countries all over the world stem from the Chinese word for it, and how a little Chinese girl bridges a language gap with it to make new friends. Luli will be illustrated by the wonderful artist Hyewon Yum.
While I wait for those books to release, I’m working on another standalone middle grade novel and two nonfiction picture books. I’m really excited to be writing more stories about Chinese American characters and giving them a voice.
Q: Anything else we should know?
I was asked by another interviewer why I think it’s important for kids to read
and learn about different cultures, and I wanted to reiterate my answer here:
The United States and many other countries are made up of people from all over the globe. Fear and misunderstanding of people who aren’t like ourselves can have tragic and heartbreaking consequences, as we’ve seen recently with the rise in violence against Asians and Asian Americans. Learning about different cultures fosters empathy and understanding, leading to a more just and peaceful world. It’s sometimes difficult for kids to meet people from other cultures, so books are an important way for them to see into and experience life from a different cultural perspective.
Thank you so much for having me on your blog, Deborah!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb