South Burlington artist Jason Chin on identity, belonging in Caldecott Medal-winning 'Watercress'
Last week, a South Burlington artist made national news for his work on a children’s book released last March. Jason Chin won the Caldecott Medal, an award given to "the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children.”
The book, Watercress, is about a Chinese American girl whose parents pick wild watercress from a roadside ditch to prepare for dinner. The girl is embarrassed until learning how her parents used to scavenge wild greens in China — which leads to a greater appreciation of her heritage.
VPR's Liam Elder-Connors spoke to Jason Chin about his work on Watercress, and what resonated with him about the book. Their conversation is below, and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Liam Elder-Connors: Well, Jason, congratulations on winning the Caldecott Medal. We're about a week out from when you found out you won, and I just wanted to know how you're feeling about it right now?
Jason Chin: You know, I'm feeling just overjoyed and humbled. At first, it was quite surreal to know that I'd won the Caldecott Medal. I've looked up to Caldecott Medal-winning artists for so long, and put them on a pedestal, you know. So it was mind blowing at first, and now I'm starting to get used to it. And it's really special.
Well, I wanted to ask about Watercress, the book that you illustrated, that you won the Caldecott Medal for. Can you tell me a little bit about what it was that resonated with you, when you first kind of received the manuscript for that book? What spoke to you about it?
Well, when my editor first brought me the manuscript, I read it, and the emotional depth of the story, just hit me hard, it was astounding. And I thought, boy, a manuscript like this doesn't come along very often. And, you know, it felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, really.
I was also hesitant about taking it on, because it is so personal. It's a semi-autobiographical story, and kind of the responsibility of taking that on, made me a little hesitant. I had to really think about it before I was ready to commit to it. But again, it was just an astounding, an amazing manuscript. And, you know, I couldn't turn it down.
You dedicated this book to your father, who was also the son of Chinese immigrants. Was it your family history, part of what resonated with you about reading this book, this manuscript, and wanting to work on it?
Yes, it definitely was. My father has a story that he told me and my brother growing up, about how when he was a kid, in first grade, I think, he went into school and the teacher asked the class, what did everyone have for breakfast this morning? And he said, "nyuk byong." And everybody in the room said, “What is that?” and he couldn't explain it, you know, he didn't know how to explain what this Chinese dish was. And it made him feel so out of place. It made him feel like he didn't belong.
And so when I read Andrea’s story, which is in large part about a girl who feels like she doesn't belong, it's about identity. And when I read it, I immediately thought of my father.
I read that for this book, you used both Western and Chinese brushes to illustrate it. Where did that idea come from? And how did you work on integrating those, these different styles?
Well, when I was trained, I was trained as a Western artist, you know, Western kind of realistic tradition. That's the kind of art that I make. And so I'm not a trained Chinese painter. But when I was making this book, I looked at a lot of Chinese landscape paintings, and Chinese bamboo paintings. And there were some aspects of that style that I thought really fit with the story. The story is a lot about memory. And in Chinese landscape paintings, there are often a lot of soft washes that make mountains look misty and cloudy, and I thought that style would be very appropriate to convey the sense of memory in this book.
I also noticed how corn – which features prominently in this book – and bamboo are both kind of symbolic plants of America and China. So in this book, I decided to incorporate some of the style of Chinese bamboo painting into how I painted the corn.
"I think that if there are children who are immigrants, or the children of immigrants, and they read this book, I hope it makes them feel seen. Because if you're in that position, and you feel like you don't belong, that's a very lonely feeling."
You know, I don't think there are too many children's books that reflect the experience of a Chinese American family in the way that Watercress does. Why do you think it's important to have books like this out in the world?
This is a book that shows a character having many complex emotions. And it shows us emotions honestly, and makes them accessible to the reader. And I think that young readers will come to this story from many different perspectives, but find connections to this protagonist, to a Chinese American family, to the American immigrant experience.
I think that if there are children who are immigrants, or the children of immigrants, and they read this book, I hope it makes them feel seen. Because if you're in that position, and you feel like you don't belong, that's a very lonely feeling. And for children that aren't closely connected to the immigrant experience, I hope this book gives them a window into what other kids in their class or in their community might be feeling.