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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Heavy Medal Mock Newbery Finalist- Watercress by Andrea Wang

Watercress

Introduction by Heavy Medal Award Committee member Stephanie Saggione.

In this gorgeous picture book, a brother and sister stop along the side of the road to pick watercress with their Chinese immigrant parents.  We see the experience through the eyes of the sister who is annoyed by her brother, disgusted by the muddy water, and very worried that she might be seen by someone she knows.  When she refuses to eat the watercress for dinner, her mother tells her about her own childhood in China; there was a famine and her family did not have enough to eat. She shows a photo of her little brother who did not survive.  The main character reflects that eating the watercress now will help her mother build new, better memories. 

 Author Andrea Wang tells us in a note that this story was inspired by her own memories of doing this with her family. She captures the discomfort and embarrassment she felt in real life when she writes about “ducking her head” to hide from passersby, “squirming away” from the dripping plants that her brother pushes at her, and putting her “sodden self” back into the car after getting soaked. The corresponding illustrations are all painted in watercolors which give the story a gentle, soft quality. Jason Chin tells us in his artist note that he purposely chose the paint and brushes because they are common to both Chinese and Western art. His attention to detail (soft washes, cerulean blue, and yellow ochre) give the pictures a vintage feel- like a memory or dream.  Readers feel transported to an earlier time to establish the mood to accompany the text.  This style is appropriate to the story’s theme about memory.  

Wang’s prose also stands alone as exemplary. She juxtaposes modern, familiar language about jeans, sneakers, store bought vegetables, and hand me down clothes with more unfamiliar words and images about a dragon’s claw, rusty scissors, chopsticks, and a longing for China.  Figurative language adds to the lyricism of the text: “eyes as sharp as the tip of a dragon’s claw, voices heavy with memories, leaves round as coins, a boy as thin as a stem of watercress”. Alliterative phrases roll off the tongue (“sopping shirt, sodden selves, dinner from a ditch”) and more obscure phrases lend themselves to the musicality as well (“cornstalks that zigzag across the horizon, unearthing items from the depths of the trunk, garlicky oil freckled with sesame seeds, roadside trash-heap furniture”).  

In this book, we clearly see the generational divide between parents and children.  Wang is asking us to consider how memories affect our understanding and behavior. As a read aloud, this book works because the story is simple and easy to follow but includes a more complicated layer discovered after inferring what happened in China.  This might lead to discussions about how the characters’ memories of poverty led to the life and behaviors in America today.  Children will make personal connections about food traditions, immigration, and memory.  This story highlights one perspective, one voice about the Chinese immigrant experience, making it an excellent contribution to American literature  among the other voices and perspectives about Chinese culture on our shelves.    

Heavy Medal Award Committee members and others are now invited to discuss this book further in the Comments section below. Please start with positive observations first; stick to positives until at least three comments have been posted or we reach 1:00 pm EST. Let the Mock Newbery discussion begin!

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About Emily Mroczek-Bayci

Emily Mroczek (Bayci) is a freelance children’s librarian in the Chicago suburbs. She served on the 2019 Newbery committee. You can reach her at emilyrmroczek@gmail.com.

Comments

  1. Aryssa Damron says

    Truly one of the most gorgeous picture books of the year! I tried doing the “type the text out separately” hack that others have mentioned and was also blown away by the standalone text—subtle and deep

  2. Rox Anne Close says

    As Stephanie noted above, the writing is exemplary with its figurative language and alliteration. But what I was most impressed by is that Wang could get so many layers of emotions, memories, and depth of characters into so few words, embarrassment at the side of the road, longing to fit in, resentment at the dinner table, grief and feeling ashamed when the girl hears her mother’s experiences, hardship and sorrows of the great famine, and finally moments of clarity and understanding. This book reminded me of Bao Phi’s book, ”A DIFFERENT POND. The feelings expressed in WATERCRESS have sat with me for days, this is definitely one of the books at the top of my pile to receive the Newbery award.

  3. Aryssa Damron says

    For me, while I feel this is a strong Newbery contender, it’s also a SHOO IN for a Caldecott.

  4. Tamara DePasquale says

    Stephanie, you point out so many lovely strengths in the narrative. I have read and reread Watercress several times. Each time it takes me a little longer to savor the text. Like Aryssa, I would not be surprised by Caldecott recognition, and I would not be disappointed to see a Newbery Honor go to Andrea Wang. Characters, setting, and themes just shine here in 32 pages! I cannot find a single flaw. What an accomplishment.

  5. Andrea Tyler says

    I think this is a good Newbery nominee, however I think it will have a better chance with the Caldecott. The illustrations in this book were just beautiful, and were able to express the emotions behind the words. There really was a lot of emotion and story packed into a picture book without a lot of text.

  6. Lisa Levin says

    I agree with everything said here as well. Just a beautiful and touching story and author’s note in the back. The watercolors illustrations are stunning but I think this would be better served as a Caldecott winner. I am actually reading it to my students for the Caldecott Award instead of the Newbery.

  7. Emily Mroczek says

    Good points so far everyone! I think it’s important to remember that if the book wins a Newbery or a Caldecott or both Is complete separate from one another. The committees don’t talk to each other at all and it’s the separate criteria (judging text and illustrations) that will decide which award it wins!

  8. Emily-
    Thanks for that reminder. Also, the Caldecott or Newbery would be awarded to a different person. The author (Andrea Wang) would receive the award if WATERCRESS received the Newbery. The illustrator (Jason Chin) would receive the award if WATERCRESS received the Caldecott.

  9. Amanda Bishop says

    Watercress is one of my favorite picture books of 2021 and the text is so beautiful. Wang wraps up so much meaning and memory in the few words. She is able to tell a family history and evoke the emotions of generational trauma through one meal. The shame that our young protagonist feels over so much in her life, her found clothes, found furniture, and now found food makes her feel set apart from her peers. But now that shame is for feeling ashamed. It’s quite a feat to tell this story in such a short amount of time. Outstanding work and I really hope she is recognized in some way.

  10. Christy Brennan says

    Certainly agree with everything said here as well. Amazing to me how the author was able to convey such layers of emotion and depth of characters in so few words/pages. As was also mentioned, the stand alone text is phenomenal – enhanced by the gorgeous illustrations. Really hope that this work is recognized in one way or another.

  11. Emily Smith says

    I read this one aloud to several classes, juxtaposed with Grace Lin’s UGLY VEGETABLES, back in April for APA Heritage month without even realizing that it was brand new publication. Although the text is stunning, I consider this one more of a Caldecott than a Newbery, specifically for the fact that the pictures, rather than the words, convey that the mother’s brother died. My favorite moment when I read this one aloud to students is asking why the brother is one page and not the next.

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