Watercress: Jason Chin's 2021 BGHB Picture Book Honor Speech

Thank you to everyone on the Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards committee for this recognition. Congratulations to all of the other authors and artists whose work has been recognized. It’s an honor to have our book listed alongside so many deserving and important books.

Watercress was a team effort, and the success of the book is made more special because of the fact that it is a shared success. Thank you to Neal Porter and Jennifer Browne, who first sat down with me and asked me to be a part of this project, and to everyone at Holiday House who worked to bring it to life. I delivered the art in April 2020, during COVID lockdown. So, the team at Holiday House was tasked with making a book remotely from apartments around New York City, I imagine, in between sanitizing their groceries and scouring the city for toilet paper. I don’t know how they did it, but they did, and they did an exceptional job.

Sketch from Watercress. Sketch: Jason Chin.

When Neal and Jennifer first showed me the text, I wasn’t immediately sure that I would take it on. It was a special text, without a doubt, but it was so heavy and so personal, and I would have to illustrate the author in her own story. The responsibility of that scared me. But I couldn’t say no. It felt like a once-in-a-lifetime manuscript, and it was impossible to turn down. Andrea conveyed so much nuanced feeling in so few words. In a single line — “ashamed of being ashamed of my family,” for example — she put words to a feeling that I know well but that I rarely face up to or verbalize. And here was this spare picture-book text, about a girl in 1970s Ohio, that gave me words for my own memories. I saw myself reflected in her story.

At the beginning of the project, Neal, in his infinite wisdom, introduced the two of us and opened the door for us to continue talking about the book. We shared family stories and family pictures, and as we talked, my apprehension faded away. After getting to know Andrea, I felt as if I had received permission to contribute to her story, and I began drawing.

Jason Chin's family, circa 1960. Photo courtesy of Jason Chin.

Gradually the protagonist grew in my mind, born from a collage of memories and feelings, of Andrea’s text and stories of her family, of me and my family. The character contained parts of all of us, but emerged as her own person. The point of this process of getting to know characters is to build empathy. I believe that when I care about the characters, when I understand them, then the pictures that I make will have a better chance of getting you to care about them, too. And I really wanted you to care about these characters.

[Read Horn Book reviews of the 2021 BGHB Picture Book winners.]

Andrea mentioned once that she expected this book to be a “window” book — a book that gave readers a glimpse into the experience of an immigrant family, and that would humanize Chinese Americans in the minds of her readers. I actually wondered if it would be difficult for children to relate to it, and I worried that many readers would see it as an exotic book, a curiosity, a “Chinese book” that was not for them.

But it turns out I was wrong. During the course of making the book and of sharing it with readers this year, we have heard from many people for whom Andrea’s story reflected their own experience. My mother’s cousin in New Hampshire who commented that her parents carried a paper bag and ­scissors in their trunk; a friend of a friend whose parents made her pick apples on someone else’s property (“no one else is picking them, they’re going to waste, it’s free food!”); a teacher whose class, after reading the book, began a discussion about food insecurity initiated by several students who’d identified with the story.

Learning of readers’ connections to the book has been immensely gratifying. These are readers from many backgrounds, who are having their experiences mirrored and validated by the story of a Chinese American girl picking watercress in a ditch in 1970s Ohio. A story that is so specific yet conveys universal human emotions and experiences and speaks to readers across time, race, and culture.

So my final thank you goes to Andrea. Andrea, thank you for writing this story and putting it into the world. It took courage to share it, and we are all better for having read it. Thank you for allowing me to be a part of it and trusting me to illustrate it. We all put our hearts into this book because we were inspired by your words. May they inspire children around the world to share their stories, too.

From the January/February 2022 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. Read author Andrea Wang's BGHB speech here. For more on the 2021 Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards, click on the tag BGHB21. Read more from The Horn Book by and about Jason Chin.

Jason Chin

Jason Chin won the 2022 Caldecott Medal and the 2022 Asian/Pacific American Picture Book Award for Literature for Watercress, written by Andrea Wang. He also received a 2019 Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Book Award for Nonfiction for Nine Months: Before a Baby Is Born, written by Miranda Paul (both Porter/Holiday).

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