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 storyinspired 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
It’s my treat to welcome children’s book author and illustrator Deb Pilutti. Deb and I recently traveled to and from the SCBWI fall conference on Mackinac Island. The many miles spent on Michigan highways gave me a chance to get to know Deb better. She’s a peach. (Well, not literally. But that would make her literary abilities all the more extraordinary, now wouldn’t it?) I know you’re going to enjoy getting to know her as much as I did. And so, my Frog on a Dime friends, meet my friend Deb Pilutti . . .
So, Deb, when did you know you wanted to become a children’s writer?
Let’s just say I was a little dense, so it took me awhile. The signs were there. When I was younger, I loved reading more than anything. A blank book was my most prized possession. I once had Leo Lionni as a design instructor in a college workshop and I was giddy to meet him because Little Blue and Little Yellow was one of my favorite books as a child. But still, I never saw writing and illustrating for children as an option. It wasn’t until I realized I was hoarding my own children’s books, and not sharing that it was something I wanted to do.
What is it about writing for children that appeals to you versus writing for adults?
What’s the most encouraging thing anyone has ever said to you related to your work?
Early on, I submitted a manuscript to an editor. She said it wasn’t right for her, but that she liked the illustrations and thought that I was a good writer and invited me to submit to her again. I was not very confident about my writing at that point, so it was exactly what needed to hear.
What advice would you give to someone who has been pursuing publication for a long time, with close calls, but no contracts?
Of course, I would say to keep trying. The fact that the person has come close means that they are on the right track. But I would also recommend doing something a little different to push yourself even more. It could be devoting more time to writing, or attend a conference or workshop or online class. A few years ago, this was the case for me. I decided to spend more time writing, which meant turning down some freelance opportunities. I also spent a couple of weekends at a writing retreat with some friends.
By Deb Pilutti Christy Ottaviano Books/Henry Holt
What would you like to share about your NEW book–details! details!
Ten Rules of Being a Superhero is published by Christy Ottaviano Books/Henry Holt is a story about the day in the life of a Lava Boy and his superhero toy, Captain Magma.
Lava Boy is making up the rules as he and Captain Magma go along – always in the spirit of superhero play. The rules are about being super from a child’s perspective, as in “Rule No. 2: Saving the Day is messy. But everyone understands,” or “Rule No. 5: Sometimes, Superheroes make a lot of noise.” At times, the action on the page is at odds with the rule.
I had so much fun making this book! And plenty of practice too, as I have spent an incredible amount of hours (A LOT) discussing the merits of various superhero powers with my children over the years. I particularly liked painting the spreads with Lava Boy’s toys in various states of distress. I am drawn to awkward, retro toys.
And for the super-super serious portion of our interview—let’s say your moral compass went missing. What make/model of car would you steal and why?
An old Ford pick up truck from the early 60s. And while my moral compass is missing, I’d nab a really great pair of vintage cowboy boots to go with it.
Good answer! Let’s try another one–on the assumption we could find a phone booth somewhere (a museum perhaps), who is the children’s author or illustrator you’d most like to be trapped inside with?
Maira Kalman. First of all, she seems like an incredibly interesting person and I would love to chat with her. She finds beauty and poignancy in the absurd, and I think she would find it in the phone booth. Plus, I would hope we would laugh a lot.
Feeling brave? How about naming three things we’d be surprised to learn about you.
I can only think of odd things – oh well. I talk to myself a lot. I have a collection of Star Trek figurines on my desk and I have an irrational aversion to using a salad fork.
Hey, I didn’t know you were a Trekkie. Thank you so much for stopping by, Deb. Best wishes to you on your super new book!
Want to WIN YOUR VERY OWN COPY of Ten Rules of Being of Superhero?
Between now and Noon on Friday, October 24, leave a comment and answer this question–Who is your superhero?
Deb Pilutti feels lucky to have a job where reading, playing with toys and
watching cartoons is considered “research”. She lives in Ann Arbor,
Michigan with her husband,two kids and one nervous border collie. Deb has
worked as a graphic designer and illustrator, creating toys and products
for children and is the author and illustrator of TEN RULES OF BEING A
SUPERHERO (Ottaviano/Holt) and BEAR AND SQUIRREL ARE FRIENDS (Simon &
Schuster), which will be published in 2015. Additionally, she illustrated
THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS IN MICHIGAN and wrote THE CITY KID AND THE
SUBURB KID (both with Sterling).
And now, in honor of our special guest, and in keeping with my quote-closing tradition, we’ll close with one of Deb’s favorite quotes . . .
Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working. ~ Pablo Picasso
Once upon a long time ago, I thought I wanted to be an author/illustrator. I took a lot of art classes in high school, alongside humanities and literature classes. But when it came time to declare a major in college, I opted for English. I don’t regret that decision. It has served me well.
If nothing else, my early art dabblings have given me an even deeper appreciation for the gorgeous work produced by professional illustrators. They are the reason I (and I suspect most of us) fell in love with children’s books in the first place.
Illustration by Vicky Lorencen
Soon, Frog on a Dime will be hosting two tip-top talented illustrators. I know I usually talk about writing here, but these artists are the music to our lyrics. Please come back and enjoy. I find their journeys, and their creativity, inspiring. I bet you will too.
In the meantime, here’s some of my refrigerator art from once upon a long time ago–circa high school, 10th grade.
Illustration by Vicky Lorencen
Illustration by Vicky Lorencen
Illustration by Vicky Lorencen
My life will be the best illustration of all my work. ~ Hans Christian Andersen