Little White Duck, written by Na Liu and illustrated by her husband Andres Martinez, is a series of vignettes about Liu’s childhood growing up in 1970s post-Mao China. They capture the feel of Liu’s childhood in a culture very foreign to 20th century America, without excessive narrative. The story opens with an image of Liu, nicknamed Da Qin (“big piano”), and her sister Xiao Qin (“little piano”) flying on an enormous crane over the city of Zhifang. The crane flies through the night and deposits them at their house. There is no overarching plot to this book, but rather a series of memories that only hang together because they are all about the same main character.
My favorite part of this book is the illustrations of backgrounds. When Da Quin gets up and gets ready for school, she takes her face towel and her cup with her toothbrush and toothpaste and goes out into the courtyard and squats down by the outdoor tap and brushes her teeth outside. When the children are in school they all wear the same neckerchiefs as part of their uniform. All the people in the backs of scenes wear similar clothing, men and women alike.
The illustrations are just beautiful. I love Martinez’s style. He manages to be very detailed without being overly technical. There is a very painterly quality to his work, even though they are colored ink line drawings. I also liked the almost monochromatic coloring. It reinforces other details of the sameness of life in China in this period of time.
While there is a glossary, timeline of events, and map of China in the back, I wished for a little more background information, rather than throwing the reader into the book without any prior knowledge. I also would have liked a pronunciation guide for the Chinese words. For example, how do you pronounce her nickname? “Dah Quinn?” “Da Chin?” In English, “Q” is always used with a “U” to make a “KW” sound, but that is not the case in transliterated Chinese. Because of the minimalism of the story, it also left me wanting more. It was intriguing to me. Is that how people lived? What do they believe? How did they feel? When is the sequel coming out?
Also, while I do appreciate that the author is showing not telling, I do wish she had told more of her story. Because of that, I am unsure of where to place it. It is a book for young children, based on the writing, but, to me, it is a book for older children, based on the concepts. Maybe it is a book best used as a doorway to learning about China.
Little White Duck: A Childhood in China
by Na Liu
Art by Andres Vera Martinez
Grapgic Universe, 2012
Publisher Age Rating: age 9 – 13