Author Andrea Wang’s childhood memory of picking watercress by the side of the road serves as the inspiration for this emotional powerhouse of a picture book, which she describes in an author’s note as “both an apology and a love letter” to her parents.
Riding with her family in an old Pontiac, a Chinese American girl describes the embarrassing moment when her parents stop the car to enthusiastically pick bunches of watercress growing in a ditch near the road. Dinner that night includes the watercress, served with garlic, but the girl refuses to eat. When her mother reminds her the meal is free, the girl withdraws further: “Free is hand-me-down clothes and roadside trash-heap furniture and now, dinner from a ditch.”
Her mother responds by leaving the table to find a childhood photo and sharing, for the first time, the story of her own brother, who died as a boy during a famine in China. After hearing this story, the girl feels remorse for being ashamed of her family, a moment that Wang captures with care and subtlety.
Wang’s writing is tender and detailed, describing the watercress as “delicate and slightly bitter, like Mom’s memories of home.” With raw honesty, the book’s first-person narration allows readers to see through the girl’s eyes. We experience both the sting of her shame and her newfound understanding alongside her.
Caldecott Honor illustrator Jason Chin’s soft, expressive watercolors lean on sepia tones, an appropriate choice for a tale that serves as a recollection of memory. Along with depicting the self-conscious girl with a photorealistic eloquence, Chin incorporates occasional images of the mother’s memories of her life in China. The spread in which she shares her memories of the famine is especially haunting. On one page, the mother describes how they ate anything they could find, and her family listens from the dinner table with expressions of sadness; on the opposite page, her brother’s chair at the table is empty.
Watercress is a delicate and deeply felt exploration of memory, trauma and family.