It’s funny to think about, but the fact of the matter is that we’re still in the early days of the graphic novel memoir for children. Adult graphic novel memoirs are capable of winning top literary awards, like the Pulitzer or the National Book Award. On the kid side of things the options are far more limited. The top literary prize for kids, the Newbery, has never been handed to a comic work, nor does the American Library Association have a prize for comics of any sort. All this comes to mind when I pick up a book like Little White Duck. Couched in the memories of its author, this groundbreaking work is perhaps the finest marriage of world history and comic art for kids I’ve seen in a very long time. A must read for young and old alike.
Told in eight short stories, the book follows Da Qin the middle class daughter of two parents, living in the late 1970s/early 80s. Through her eyes we see a number of small stories about growing up in a post-Mao China. There’s the tale of how she and her younger sister attempted to emulate their nation’s heroes by helping some thirsty chicks (to an unfortunate end, I’m afraid), or the one about having to bring in rat tails to prove she was great at pest control. There’s the story of how Mao’s death affected the nation, and useful facts about China during this era. Most impressive is the titular story about Da Qin and what happened to the white velvet duck on her jacket when she and her father visited the village where he was born. Honest, sometimes funny, and unusually touching, this glimpse into another life in another world rings distinctly true.
This book has been a reason for serious debate amongst the librarians of my system. Some wondered about the seemingly unconnected stories and whether or not they gelled properly. Others fretted that there wasn’t enough context given about growing up in China during the post-Mao era. Still others wondered about the authenticity. The book was then handed to a co-worker of mine who grew up in China during the same time period as Na Liu she was floored. The details of the book were straight out of her own childhood. She held up one picture to me of popped rice, explaining what it was and how she had never seen it portrayed in a book before. So on the reality front the book certainly ranks an A.
Actually, when I asked my Chinese co-worker to read the book in the first place she was hugely reluctant. Turned out, she just didn’t want to read yet another kid’s book about the Cultural Revolution, and who could blame her? I would say that the vast swath of books for kids set in China are solely interested in Cultural Revolution stuff (stuff that my poor co-worker would be forced to vet time and time again). Part of what makes Little White Duck work is that without didacticism it simply tells a true story about some of the people who were helped by Mao’s rule. Da Qin’s parents were poor and thanks to changes were able to get an education and treated for polio. The book makes no bones about the hungry times under Mao, but it’s rare to get a nuanced view in a work for youth. Heck, the first story in the book is about the massive weeping that occurred in Da Qin’s village when Mao died and about her very realistic child response of crying because everyone else was crying around her. That’s honestly Liu’s greatest strength with this book. She creates universal stories from her youth that anybody can enjoy, even as she sets them in a very specific time and place. That’s why the fact that they are individual stories rather than one overarching storyline work for me. Each one is like a little glimpse into a realistic kid’s life.
Not to mention the fact that the book deals with class in a remarkable way. I’ve a real penchant for children’s books that know how to deal with class differences. Bad works of children’s literature will usually feature a poor kid hating a rich kid and then inevitably discovering “Gee whiz, we’re not so different after all.”. Smart books for kids handle this enormously complex idea in candid, thoughtful ways. Anna Hibiscus could do it by showing the difference between middle and lower classes in contemporary Nigeria. Little White Duck is the same, using its titular story to tell the tale of Da Qin and her father visiting the poor village where he grew up. Reading that story I went into it confident that I knew how it would work. When Da Qin’s father tells her to go play with the village kids I was sure they’d be mean to her and she’d learn something. Instead they’re perfectly cordial. They are, admittedly, fascinated by the little white velvet duck on her coat and the dirt on their hands coat it black with all their petting. Then for fun, because they can’t afford books like she can, they put sticks up buzzing insects and run about. The next shot is a shell-shocked Da Qin sitting on a train seat while her father asks obliviously, “Did you have a good time?” I loved that. I loved seeing her encounter kids with less at such a young age and coming to an understanding of how lucky she was.
One librarian I spoke too worried that because there are so few books for kids out there, children reading this book today might assume that it shows contemporary China and not the China of the past. Honestly I don’t think that’s a huge danger. It’s possible that will happen, sure, but Liu covers her bases for the most part, and the brown palette of the art gives everything a historical taste. Now the art poses an interesting question. Created by Texan artist Andres Vera Martinez, this is at least his second foray into graphic novels for kids. The style is perfect for the story too. Filled with details realistic, but also fun, it’s a properly moving tone for a book that is sometimes thoughtful, sometimes sad, sometimes funny, and always interesting. Now that brown palette I alluded to earlier could potentially prove detrimental. There is an understanding out there that kids will not read black and white comics. True. There is also and understanding that kids will not read books with brown covers. Also true. So what do we make of books that are comics colored in a lot of brown? I’m not quite sure but I’m confident that any kid who reads a story or two in the book will be hugely inclined to continue to do so. Good art and writing win out.
Liu says in the book that she wrote it so that her daughter might get a glimpse into what it was like growing up. Sometimes family stories just aren’t enough. You’ve gotta show, not tell. Even now, when I show a book like this to adults, some of them will say to me, “But what kid would ever read it?”. There’s this continuing perception that unless a comic has superheroes or manga characters it, no kid will want to read it. This does kids a serious injustice. We don’t ask why kids would ever pick up a memoir like Diary of a Young Girl even when there are copies of Harry Potter available. The wonderful thing about kids and comics is that some readers will pick up anything, just so long as there are panels and speech balloons to be had. In other cases you have kids that like comics but aren’t big fiction and fantasy readers. For them we hand over this book. Perhaps the strongest graphic novels for kids of the year and undoubtedly unique, this is one way of teaching world history through a lens that cannot be matched. Thoroughly and entirely remarkable.
On shelves now.
Source: Reviewed from galley sent from publisher.
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