Little White Duck: A Childhood in China by Na Liu and Andrés Vera Martínez
Little White Duck is a visual feast that showcases the childhood memories of author Na Liu, and vibrantly enhanced by her artist husband Andrés Vera Martínez. Liu introduces herself with an adorably grinning “Ni Hao!,” explaining that she was born in Zhifang, a suburb of Wuhan, China in 1973. Her family name is Liu, her given name Na, but as Chinese children are usually called by nicknames (so that “bad luck and spirits couldn’t find you if your true name was never spoken out loud”), she is called Qin, which means ‘piano.’ When her little sister comes along a year later, she becomes Da Qin (Big Piano), and her little sister Xiao Qin (Little Piano).
Eight short segments detail Da Qin’s youthful experiences, from her role as big sister to accompanying her mother to school, to joining her mother in tears over the death of ‘Grandpa’ Mao, to learning to never waste food, to performing good deeds, to celebrating the holidays with extended family, to visiting estranged relatives whose lives are drastically different from her own.
At first reading, especially for younger readers, Da Qin’s childhood about growing up in a faraway place decades ago is not unlike a vaguely familiar fable. Older audiences, however, will recognize the story as an important, even unsettling historical record of a pivotal time. Liu briefly mentions the one-child policy as “a new law” which her parents were able to avoid because her “little sister was already on the way.” When only one child is officially allowed to enroll in school, Liu’s sister becomes the sole student while Liu was lucky enough “to get a good start on my education” by joining her mother’s classroom in the elementary school in which her mother teaches. Liu’s mother explains how Mao’s policies allowed her the surgeries she needed to walk again after being paralyzed by polio, but also recalls how the Great Famine destroyed so many lives. The inequities Liu experiences in her father’s remote village – her “flat-out mean” grandmother, her dirt-stained aggressive cousins who know nothing of books – brings new insight to a world beyond the comfortable life she shares with her immediate family.
Liu and her sister represent China’s “transitional generation – a generation caught in between one way of life and another, between the old and the new.” As children, they bear witness to the emergence of a new China on the international stage, from the deprivations of the Cultural Revolution toward gradual economic and technological modernization.
“I read in the writing of Confucius that there are three ways to learn,” Liu concludes. “First: by studying history, which is the best. Second: By imitating someone or something which is easiest. And third: Through your own experience, which can be heartbreaking.” Liu’s childhood in China “was a special time,” which she wisely chooses (after “some convincing” from hubby Martínez) to “preserve … through pictures and stories.” Their joint production is spectacular.
Tidbit: Duck is one of the most complete books ever. The already memorable story is significantly strengthened with back-of-the-book supplementary materials which includes a “Glossary of Mandarin Chinese Words and Other Words and Names,” a timeline from 551 BCE to Mao’s death in 1976, a more detailed biography of Liu, country and province maps, and – most impressive of all, something I can’t remember seeing in any other book, regardless of target audience! – a page of “Translations of Chinese Characters” of the signs, posters, plaques, and other calligraphy throughout the book. WOW! Talk about feeling utterly grateful to be able to enjoy every detail!
Readers: Children, Middle Grade, Young Adult