Leaving China: An Artist Paints His
World War II Childhood
by James McMullan; illus. by the author
Middle School, High School Algonquin 113 pp.
3/14 978-1-61620-255-2 $19.95
McMullan was born in Tsingtao, North China, in 1934 to an Irish-English missionary family. His privileged childhood was disrupted by the 1937 Japanese occupation; by 1941, he and his mother were sailing for her Canadian homeland. In 1944 the two took a freighter’s “long, looping, evasive southern route” from New York to Bombay to meet his father; by 1945, the boy had circled the globe. Meanwhile, at one unsatisfactory school after another, Jimmie — ever awkward at sports — found bullies but few friends, though his artistic talent charmed some. McMullan punctuates his spare narrative with character-revealing incidents and memorable moments: the small boy, housebound by Japanese soldiers outside, studying painted Chinese scrolls “so quiet and subdued but somehow so alive”; a kindly boxing instructor observing that “you’ll be an artist and not a boxer”; or the Himalayas as backdrop to tiny figures doing calisthenics. With an impeccable sense of place, McMullan re-creates such diverse settings in full-page art facing, and illuminating, titled pages of text: “My Father at the Piano”; “The Wrong Accent”; “The Bombing Scare.” His palette is gentle: mauves and rusts ripen into peach or rose while areas of more saturated tones focus the drama. Each memory of this observant child becomes a richly evocative scene as well as a harmonious composition — at times enlivened with telling detail, at others reduced to the utmost poignant simplicity. Like David Small’s Stitches, this is an intimate and powerful autobiographical journey. A postscript, endpaper map, and acknowledgments are appended.
From the May/June 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.