What this graphic novel points out with classy in-your-face power is that we really don’t know what it’s like to grow up in China. Or rather, in the China of the late 1970s. Little White Duck succeeds on so many levels I’m not sure where to begin. We watch a little girl named Da Qin learning and growing just by seeing the moments of her life. We understand more about what it means to be part of a great country where people don’t walk around saying, “Oh dear, we’re communists!” No, this is their life, their worries, their pride. We experience all of this through focused language and rich, strong artwork in a book that reminds me, subtly, of Sandra Cisneros’s A House on Mango Street.
I remember when North Korea’s leader died year before last, we here in America were inclined to believe that the crowd’s tears were fake. Maybe some of them were—but maybe not. In Little White Duck, Da Qin wants to know why her parents are so sad, why her mother is weeping. “Grandfather has died,” they tell her, and they mean Chairman Mao.
Aside from showing us life in China, the book gives marvelous little life lessons through Da Qin’s experiences—such as when she insists on wearing her best coat to visit the village of her father’s mother. She is baffled and upset by how mean her grandmother is, and by the way the children in this impoverished place treat her. But she is also changed somehow.
There’s humor, too. For example, at one point Da Qin and her sister don’t want to eat their vegetables, and their mom gives them a hair-raising version of our culture’s “But there are children starving in Africa” speech. Then there’s the rat-catching incident…
To revisit the artwork, Booklist says it “evokes both traditional Chinese scrolls and midcentury propaganda posters.” We are even given a spread of such posters, with translations provided at the end of the book. The colors, the lines, the style all combine to make this book as art, worthy of a coffee table or a better still a gallery exhibit.
Little White Duck is an amazing book, truly. My only question is whether it’s really for kids. Well, I would read it with the 10-and-ups. And I would read it with high school students. It’s a good accompaniment to a study of world history and of other cultures. Or US history and the Cold War. It could prompt conversation as a set of moral tales, or it could prompt writing about what our experiences teach us.
Whether you’re 10 or 40, this book from husband-and-wife team Martínez and Liu is a work to enjoy and ponder. Or, as Aristotle would no doubt put it, Little White Duck both delights and teaches.