Holiday House sat down with author Andrea Wang to talk about her new picture book, Watercress, illustrated by Caldecott Honor–winning artist Jason Chin.
Andrea, please tell us about Watercress.
A young Chinese American girl is in the car with her family when her mother spots watercress growing in a ditch by the side of the road. To her dismay, her parents make her and her older brother get out and help them gather the watercress, which they serve at dinner that night. The girl, humiliated by the experience and feeling even more like she doesn’t belong in her rural town, refuses to eat the watercress. But the vegetable holds a completely different meaning and memory for her mother, who shares a story from her childhood in China.
The girl gains a new understanding of her parents and her family history, and together, they make a new memory of watercress.
What was the inspiration behind the book?
The story is based on my own memories of growing up in rural Ohio in the 1970s, the daughter of immigrant parents from China. My parents stopped and made us pick watercress from the wild many times when I was young. They were very frugal and did many things, in addition to picking watercress, that embarrassed me a lot as a child. It wasn’t until I was much older that I understood what drove them to do these things, even after we could afford to buy what we needed. They didn’t talk about the hardships they suffered in China until I was a teenager, and I wish they had shared those stories with me sooner so I could understand the reasons why they did certain things.
Tell us why this book is special to you. What impression do you hope it will leave with young readers?
This book is special to me because it is essentially about me—I was that sulky girl who felt ashamed of her family. Writing the story was very cathartic for me, although it took years before I found my way into the story.
I hope young readers will empathize with the girl for feeling like she didn’t belong, and come to understand that their parents are people, too, and often have painful memories in their pasts. I also hope that both Asian American and non-Asian readers will see a side to China that they might not have thought of or known about before—a different narrative to counter the anti-Chinese sentiment that has risen in the U.S. over the last four years.
What inspired you to write, and when did you know you would become an author?
I have always loved reading and wrote my first stories the way nearly all American kids do—in school. I loved it and kept writing outside of school. I typed up stories on my father’s old typewriter when I was nine and bound them into books with wallpaper-covered covers. In one of these books, I wrote my first author’s bio, which stated that I wanted “to become a writer when I grow up.” So that’s when I knew. It wasn’t a straight journey, but I eventually achieved that dream!
What was your favorite book growing up?
I loved Anne of Green Gables, Caddie Woodlawn, and Time at the Top.
What is a favorite book memory from childhood?
Curling up in the back of the large closet in my room, hidden by winter coats, reading a book by the light of a small desk lamp I dragged in there, cat on my lap, snacking on chocolate chips.
Do you have any pets? Favorites?
I currently have a nine-month old rescue pup named Tupelo. Mochi was my first dog, whom we adopted in 2013 and sadly lost in June 2019. When I was a child, I had two parakeets, a gerbil, a cat, and a rotating assortment of fish. They were/are all special in some way.
Name three of your favorite authors/children’s book authors of all time.
Madeleine L’Engle, Ursula Le Guin, Jane Austen
What book(s) have you most wanted to read, but haven’t yet?
There are too many to count—I have shelves of unread books that I’m dying to read.
What book from your childhood changed your life? Adulthood?
Anne of Green Gables really changed my life by showing me that a girl could be outspoken. In adulthood, The Joy Luck Club, because that was the first time I saw myself represented in a book.
Who is your favorite children’s book character and why?
I keep coming back to Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables—see above answer for why.
If you could live in any book, which would it be?
One of Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern books, because who wouldn’t want to live in a world where you could fly on dragons?
If you could have a magical talent, what would it be?
I’ve always wanted to be able to talk to animals.
What is your favorite food?
My go-to comfort food is stir-fried rice cake with snow cabbage and soybeans.
Has it changed since childhood?
Yes, a lot! My favorite food as a child was a tie between Kraft mac and cheese and chocolate chip cookies.
What food did you hate growing up but came to love in adulthood?
Ha! I think I’m almost duty bound to say watercress. Honestly, though, I didn’t like watercress or other Chinese vegetables as a child, but now I prefer them.
Who was your hero growing up? Who is it now?
My hero was, and always will be, my mom.
About Andrea Wang
Andrea Wang is the award-winning author of The Nian Monster and Magic Ramen: The Story of Momofuku Ando. She was inspired to write Watercress by her experience growing up in rural Ohio as a child of Chinese immigrants. Andrea holds an M.S. in Environmental Science and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing for Young People. She lives in Colorado with her family.