Driving through Ohio in an old Pontiac, a young girl’s parents stop suddenly when they spot something growing in a ditch by the side of the road…watercress!
With an old paper bag and some rusty scissors, the whole family wades into the muck to collect as much of the muddy, snail-covered plant as they can.
At first, it’s embarrassing. Why can’t her family get food at the grocery store?
But when her mother shares the story of her family’s life in China, the girl learns to appreciate the fresh food they foraged.
Together, they make a new memory of watercress in this tender story inspired by the author’s childhood memories and illustrated by Caldecott Honor artist Jason Chin.
(Description source: Jacket flap, WATERCRESS by Andrea Wang)
Here we are, Thanksgiving Week, and I am feeling so grateful for time to chat with my extra special guest–Andrea Wang!
Andrea is the award-winning author of The Nian Monster (APALA Honor, PW starred review) and Magic Ramen: The Story of Momofuku Ando (JLG Gold Standard Selection, Sakura Medal, Freeman Book Award Honor, SLJ starred review). She has two books releasing in 2021: Watercress (JLG Gold Standard Selection, starred reviews from Kirkus, SLJ, PW, Horn Book); and The Many Meanings of Meilan, her debut middle grade novel. Her work explores culture, creative thinking, and identity. She is also the author of seven nonfiction titles for the library and school market. Andrea holds an M.S. in Environmental Science and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing for Young People. She lives in the Denver area with her family.
Welcome, Andrea. Thank you for stopping by Frog on a Dime. I’m so excited! Let’s hop right in and talk about your latest picture book WATERCRESS . . .
I see you dedicated WATERCRESS in memory of your parents and described them as “immigrants and inspirations.” In what way did they inspire you?
It takes an enormous amount of courage to give up everyone and everything you’ve ever known to go live in a place where you don’t speak the language, all in pursuit of a better life for yourself and your family. Finally understanding the hardships and sacrifices my parents made inspired me to not only pursue my dream of writing, but also to be vulnerable and emotionally honest in my writing.
What do you feel is gained when parents and grandparents open up to their children/grandchildren about family history and memories?
I talk about this in my Author’s Note, so I thought I’d share that part of it here: “…it’s important, too, for children to understand their family history. Perhaps if I had known about the hardships they had faced, I would have been more compassionate as a child. Maybe I would have felt more empathy and less anger. More pride in my heritage and less shame. Memories have the power to inform, to inspire, and to heal.”
Those are great insights, Andrea. Thank you.
What do you hope young readers take away? What about parents? Teachers?
I hope all readers see that, no matter where you are from or how you identify, we all share a common humanity. You may not be a child of immigrants or have had to pick food from the wild, but everyone has felt embarrassment, shame, and the feeling of not belonging. The emotions in WATERCRESS are universal. We need to be kinder to each other, to reach for understanding rather than react out of ignorance.
No surprise, next I’d like to ask a few questions on behalf of my fellow writers, okay?
How long after you wrote WATERCRESS did you feel ready to share it with anyone?
In its current form, I think I shared the manuscript with a few critique partners right after I wrote it. Mostly, I wanted to get their feedback about what they thought it was–just a poem, or could it be a picture book? They thought I should send it to my agent immediately, so that’s what I did. But it took me about eight years to write this version of WATERCRESS and I did share those previous versions with critique partners, so it was an iterative process, like writing always is.
I’m so glad you persevered–and that you listened to your critique partners!
What was your approach to this autobiographical story compared to previous manuscripts?
I don’t know that I’d call it an “approach,” because that sounds like I went into this project with a plan and that’s not how it was at all. The first version of this story was in the form of a personal essay for adults, which I thought would be a good format since I was using my own memories as material. But that piece didn’t really work, so I rewrote it years later as a fictional picture book. That version was from a 3rd person POV and it was better, but too long and lacking an emotional heart. Several more years later, I found the perfect mentor text (A DIFFERENT POND by Bao Phi and illustrated by Thi Bui) and revised the manuscript again, returning to 1st person POV and paring away every single word that felt extraneous, so that it came out in free verse.
Your use of spare text meant you needed to lean on the illustrator, Jason Chin, to communicate for you at times, including one of the story’s most poignant scenes. That’s a challenge for many picture book writers. How did you reach to that level of trust?
While I was writing this free-verse version of Watercress, I honestly wasn’t thinking about the illustrator or the illustrations at all. I was writing for myself, and I knew exactly what I meant by each line. I did consciously add a couple of clues (“Mom never talks about her China family,” and “Mom never told us what happened to him.”) leading up to that scene you’re referring to, so the reader is primed for the reveal. I also went back and made sure that every description in the text conveyed character, emotion, and/or setting that was necessary to the story. Everything else got pared away. I would advise PB writers to write illustration notes in their first drafts, then go back to each note and ask if it’s really necessary to the story. Does it add depth to a character, convey emotion, or establish atmosphere? Would the story and the reader suffer if the information was omitted? If not, then delete! If yes, then try to work the information into the text using vivid verbs, metaphors, and adjectives. I always aim to not have any illustration notes in my manuscripts.
Thank you, Andrea. If I’m ever brave enough to attempt another picture book, I’m going to follow your brilliant advice!
And now, one last question, this time for my curious foodie friends . . .
Do you prepare watercress now for your family?
In WATERCRESS, the family eats the vegetable stir-fried, which is how I prefer it. I don’t follow a formal recipe since it’s so simple, but this is how I make it:
1-2 tsp cooking oil
1 bunch fresh watercress, rinsed and drained
1 clove garlic, sliced
toasted sesame seeds for garnish (optional)
In a wok or large frying pan, heat the oil over medium-high to high heat. Add garlic and stir quickly with a spatula.
After a few seconds, add the watercress and continue stirring for 1-2 minutes, until the watercress has changed color and the stems are tender.
If the bottom of the wok runs dry, a couple of tablespoons of water can be added to keep the vegetables from scorching.
Add salt to taste and transfer to a serving dish.
Sprinkle with sesame seeds and enjoy!
Andrea, thank you so much. It’s been a delight and an honor to have you as a guest today.
A Bonus Thanksgiving Surprise! Win a Copy of WATERCRESS!
As an expression of thanks, Frog on a Dime invites you to enter for a chance to win your very own personalized copy of WATERCRESS, signed by both Andrea Wang and Caldecott honoree Jason Chin.
TO ENTER, simply leave a comment below.
The names of THREE lucky winners will be drawn at Noon on Thanksgiving Day, Thursday, November 25.
The secret of happiness is to see all the marvels of the world, and never to forget the drops of oil on the spoon. ~ Paulo Coelho