LITTLE WHITE DUCK: A Childhood in China by Na Liu and Andrés Vera Martínez 🦆 // capturing the innocence and perplexity of growing up
I did not expect this graphic novel to make me feel so many things for the experiences that the main character, Da Qin, went through when I first picked this book up at the library.
I had glimpsed the spine of this novel, sandwiched between two large books, on a discreet shelf at the library. The fact that the title said A Childhood in China immediately caught my interest. I flipped through the book, saw the beautiful illustrations, and decided that I would check the book out. After all, I hadn’t read a graphic novel since what seemed like forever, and the topic within the book seemed interesting.
I had thought, since Little White Duck was a graphic novel, that I would be able to fly through it for some easy reading and be done with the novel — but that was not the case at all. The themes, stories, and emotions that the book brought up within me as I immersed myself in Da Qin’s childhood in China made me think more deeply about my own childhood experiences than I had for quite a while. It brought me out of this mental state where I was constantly thinking about the future, present, and recent past and back to my memories as a child, which allowed me to connect more with Da Qin’s experiences and evaluate them in comparison to my own.
The fact that this graphic novel is based on the author’s own life (Na Liu) enhanced my reading of this story because simply knowing that a real person’s life was being portrayed through each illustration and emotion being expressed made this novel feel so much more real. The honest and accurate depictions of life in China made me feel like I was being transported to that place and time, and I also learned a lot about the setting — more, actually than I learned in the recent history books I’ve read about China.
This beautifully-illustrated graphic novel made me realize how much I had been missing in my literary life by not paying attention to books other than chapter books. Instead of breezing through Little White Duck as I had expected myself to do before reading it, I found myself slowly taking in the intricate boxes of scenes on each page, discovering with each scan of the page a new detail about Da Qin’s childhood in China.
Take these two pages from the book, for example, from the short story in which Da Qin describes her New Year Feast:
As someone who knows the Chinese culture quite well, I immediately saw the gender disparity and family dynamics within the household.
You can see the grandparents sitting down at the main table and being served, respectfully so, instead of being the ones doing the serving. However, it’s easy to miss the fact that, other than the grandmother, only men are sitting down at the table. Da Qin’s mother wears an apron and serves the dishes, while in the kitchen, Da Qin’s uncles’ girlfriends prepare, cook, and serve the food as well.
Off to the side in the same room where the main dining table is located is a small table just for Da Qin and her little sister. However, Da Qin and Xiao Qin aren’t sitting down — they’re playing outside the house, illustrating how, as kids, they are allowed to play around and not participate in cooking or talking with the adults.
It’s important to note that Da Qin, in her narration, did not explain any of the things that I’ve mentioned above. I was only able to come to my above conclusions by analyzing the illustrations on the two pages by myself and use my knowledge of the Chinese culture to help me interpret it. Otherwise, with Da Qin’s upbeat narration and claims of everyone being happy, I could have just though, Oh, hey, look how wonderful and perfect that is! and ignore the little subtle clues that Na Liu and Andrés Vera Martínez had put in the novel for readers to discover.
The blend of Da Qin’s childhood innocence in her narration and the prevalence of more mature themes, like gender disparity, brainwashing propaganda, and poverty makes this a graphic novel for people of all ages. A child who is seven will interpret this story in a different way than a grandparent of seventy will interpret it; as a student in between the stages of being a seven-year-old child and a seventy-year-old grandparent in life, I’ll also have a differing understanding of the story.
Thus, the seamless mixture of light and heavier themes within the novel makes the story stand out vividly in my mind. If you’re interested in how Na Liu and Andrés Vera Martínez manages to do this in their graphic novel, I would highly recommend you read Little White Duck: A Childhood in China because it’s such a beautiful story. 😊❤️
I especially loved how much of the Chinese culture was talked about within this graphic novel. The illustrations and short stories made complex parts of Chinese history easy to grasp and comprehend, such as the idea of the four pests and the mythology behind the existence of Chinese New Year. Paired up with Da Qin’s narration of her experiences regarding these aspects of Chinese society and culture, the story of Little White Duck reads naturally as a realistic account of a child’s experience in China.
The most heartbreaking part in the novel — but nevertheless my favorite — was when Da Qin traveled with her father to her father’s village, where he grew up as a child, to visit her grandmother there. Upon arriving to the village, Da Qin’s father tells her to go outside and play with her cousins — cousins that Da Qin didn’t even now she had. Dressed in her best clothing, she walks outside and is shocked by what she sees: children crouching on grey dirt with sticks clutched in their palms; their clothes ragged and sewn with square patches of cloth; and faces and skin grimy from playing outside.
In her shock, Da Qin stops to ask them whether they were really her cousins. The children, instead of replying, crowd around her, making Da Qin anxious and unsure of what they would do to her —
— but Da Qin quickly realizes that all they wanted to do was touch the little white duck on her jacket. She wore it because it was a pretty and nice jacket, and she liked the white velvet duck sewn on it. When she comprehends that the reason why her cousins were so fascinated with her jacket’s little white duck was because they had never seen or touched velvet before, Da Qin begins to cry for reasons she can’t quite completely understand yet:
This moment in the novel really struck a chord with me because that perplexity of your own small understanding of the world as a child is just so utterly confusing. This novel captures one of the purest and most innocent emotions a child — or any person, no matter what their age — can have, and describes it in the simplest, most accurate way:
How is one supposed to act or feel when they want to do the best and most righteous thing possible, yet also have a voice in the back of their head telling them that they don’t want to do that thing?
Da Qin knew that she shouldn’t get upset about her cousins making her prettiest coat dirty… yet she does end up being upset, for me, as a reader, I felt like it was my responsible to acknowledge that those contradicting emotions Da Qin had experienced…
it’s completely okay to feel that way.
Every single person has had to deal with conflicting emotions in their life. As a child, they were confusing; as we grow older, we think we have more control and more wisdom to deal with those conflicting emotions when they hit us — except when they do suddenly pop up, we realize how much there still is to learn about ourselves and the world around us.
Trying to understand the complexity of my own desires and what is right or wrong is a process that will take me my entire life to figure out.
Reading Little White Duck: A Childhood in China made thoughts and emotions that I haven’t felt in months bubble up to the surface of my mind and pluck at my heartstrings. This story was real, heartwarming, and heartbreaking at the same time; it was educational and insightful, innocent and joyful, horrifying and shyly comical.
It, in essence, was beautiful.
I’m so grateful that I stumbled upon this little hidden treasure of a novel, and I hope that you, dear reader, will pick up this lovely novel and experience Da Qin’s childhood in China for yourself. 😊 You’ll learn a few things about the Chinese culture and feel a plethora of emotions will reading this novel, and basically, you’ll love it. This book is easy to love once you see the first inkling of how it relates to your own childhood and experience as a human being.
Thank you so much for reading this book chat, and remember …
Are you a big reader of graphic novels? Do you have recommendations for me? Are you interested in learning more about the Chinese culture as well, and if so, where did that passion stem from?
Are you the kind of person who reflects a lot on past experiences and/or your childhood? Why do you take time out of your day to reflect on your past? Do you think it’s important to do so? Should more take time to remember their past and reflect on it?
I’ll cya next time, and have an amazing rest of your day!
or night. or afternoon. or wherever and whenever you are in this lovely world. 😊
🌕 🌖 🌗 🌘 🌑 🌒 🌓 🌔
This book chat is part of Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday meme. You can find her blog @ Ramblings of a Wannabe Scribe, though currently the host is Greg Pattridge. His blog can be found @ Always in the Middle. Thanks for the feature!