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Andrea Wang and Jason Chin’s Caldecott Medal-winning ‘Watercress’ solidifies its place in history

"Watercress" by Andrea Wang and illustrated by Jason ChinCourtesy of Holiday House Publishing, Inc

In January, Vermont-based artist Jason Chin was awarded the 2022 Randolph Caldecott Medal for illustrating “Watercress,” written by Andrea Wang and published by Neal Porter Books/Holiday House. Wang, who is a graduate of Wellesley College and Lesley University’s Writing for Young People MFA program, also won a Newbery Honor for “Watercress,” an unusual distinction for a picture book.

Since its debut in March 2021, “Watercress” also earned the 2022 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature and was earlier named a New York Times Best Children’s Book of the Year, a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Book, and a New England Book Award Winner. “Watercress” is set in 1970s Ohio with flashbacks to China a generation earlier. Inspired by Wang’s own experiences, it traces a young girl’s emerging connection to her Chinese heritage that arises from an everyday occurrence — gathering watercress by the side of the road on a family trip. The text is lyrical and the illustrations lustrous.

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We caught up with Chin and Wang, who now lives in Colorado, from their homes, where they were celebrating with their families following the announcements.

As the illustrator and author of “Watercress,” you are covered in glory, as the saying goes. How does it feel?

JC: I’m overjoyed and humbled. I’ve admired and studied Caldecott Medal-winning artists for years, and it’s hard to believe that I’m now part of that group. It feels really good to know that “Watercress” will reach so many children.

AW: It feels amazing, thrilling, and also like I’m living in an alternate reality. It’s a bit bewildering to write in solitude for years and then suddenly find many eyes on me. I’m also very grateful that the book has resonated with so many readers.

"Watercress" author Andrea WangElaine Freitas Photography
"Watercress" illustrator Jason ChinDeirdre Gill

Jason, this is not your first rodeo because your book “Grand Canyon” was awarded a Caldecott Honor in 2018. How is this different for you?

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JC: When I received the Caldecott Honor, I was elated to think about how many kids would see the book. This is like that, only more so. My understanding is that the book will stay in print forever. That’s hard to wrap my mind around. Generations of children will be able to read this book.

How did you come to write “Watercress”?

AW: Over eight years ago, I wrote a personal essay about picking watercress by the side of the road when I was a child. It was a way for me to work through some personal losses. But that memory haunted me and I still didn’t know why. After I started writing for children, I took out the essay and rewrote it as a picture book, but it was far too long and I still struggled to find the heart of the story. More years passed before I realized that I needed to acknowledge the shame and embarrassment I felt about my family and culture when I was young, and to use the main character to show my eventual understanding and acceptance. In reality, I didn’t truly embrace my heritage until I was an adult.

Can you tell us a bit about the art style you used?

JC: I ended up doing it in watercolor because it’s a medium that is common to both Chinese and Western culture. My training is in a western tradition, but for this book I incorporated techniques used in traditional Chinese paintings. For example, mountains are often painted with soft washes that imply distance, clouds and mist. I used soft washes in “Watercress” to describe distance, the haze of a hot day, and to imply memory, a theme that runs throughout the text. I also incorporated techniques used in Chinese bamboo paintings into my depiction of cornstalks in the book. In doing so, I wanted to draw a visual parallel between corn and bamboo, two plants that are icons of American and Chinese cultures.

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In your note at the end of the book you urge readers to “Share your memories. Tell your stories.” Is that what you’re attempting to do in “Watercress”? You also, intriguingly, state that the story is “both an apology and a love letter” to your parents. Can you explain?

AW: Although the story in “Watercress” is somewhat fictionalized, it is based on my memories of picking watercress, feeling like I didn’t belong, being ashamed of my family, and then seeing my heritage in a new light. Key to that understanding was learning my family history — stories about my parents’ childhoods that they didn’t share with me until I was much older. I believe that it’s important to share our personal histories with children, so they can understand not only where they come from but also the events that shaped our actions and behavior.

By the time I wrote “Watercress,” my parents had both passed away. So the story is my apology to them for not being more compassionate or understanding of the horrors of war and resulting trauma they had experienced. And it’s a love letter because despite everything, they survived and found the strength and courage to leave everything behind and forge a new life here.

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Readers are often surprised to learn that the author and illustrator of picture books have often never even met. Have you two ever met?

JC: That’s true. The author and illustrator usually don’t meet, at least until after the book is finished. In this case, our editor did introduce us. I think he chose to do so because the story is so personal and involves so much of Andrea’s memories and family history.

I’m so glad that he did. Going into the project, I felt responsible for Andrea’s memories, for her family story, and the weight of that responsibility gave me anxiety. But meeting Andrea and talking to her about her family and her memories, put me at ease. It took some of the pressure off and I felt like I had permission to illustrate the book.

Betsy Groban is a columnist for Publishers Weekly Children’s Bookshelf and has worked in book publishing, public broadcasting, and arts advocacy.