Na Liu was born in a suburb of Wuhan, China, in 1973. She became a scientific researcher and physician, and moved to America where she met her husband, the artist Andrés Vera Martínez.
Of her childhood home, Na Liu explains that she was part of a “transitional generation—a generation caught in between one way of life and another, between the old and the new.” Here Martínez and Liu describe their collaboration on Little White Duck: A Childhood in China (Graphic Universe/Lerner, 2012; Gr 6 Up). The book is based on incidents from Liu’s early life that “reveal the drastic shift” from how her parents “grew up to how children of China live today.”
Na, what inspired you to tell the story of your childhood in China?
Na Liu: It was because of Andrés. Whenever he talks to someone, he wants to know all about them. He was curious about my family stories. I don’t think many children know what was going on in China at that time—it wasn’t an open society.
Andrés Vera Martínez: Little White Duck started as a challenge with Jim Hanley’s Universe in New York City: to create a 24-page comic in 24 hours. I’d just completed a book and had some ideas: a lot of childhood stories of my own, some ghost stories. At the time Na was pregnant and I wanted to do something for her and my daughter. She’d told me the story of the little white duck that was sewn onto her jacket when she was young and that’s the story I decided to illustrate [at Hanley’s]. When I brought it home, Na thought it was wonderful. I developed the 24 pages into 10 pages [to submit to publishers]. Lerner “got it” as short stories, vignettes of memories; other publishers wanted to change it. At that stage, when I showed Little White Duck to Na, she said it wasn’t exactly like that. We had to go detail for detail.
NL: Whenever he drew even a little bit different from what I remembered, I’d say, “No, it doesn’t look like that.”
AVM: It took us two years to complete.
In the introduction, Na says she thinks of her childhood in China as “ordinary.” But to an American child, along with the experiences that they will recognize, such as the love of family and home, there are some unusual details—washing outdoors, catching rats for a school assignment.
AVM: I’d ask Na, “What did you do when you woke up? Where did you brush your teeth?” She’d say, “We went outside. The faucet was up high, I could barely reach it; we’d take a cup out.” We worked together. She described scenes and I tried to make them into a three-dimensional world in my illustrations.
The stories in the book center on a small girl named Da Qin (“Big Piano”). Could you tell us about the image of Da Qin and her sister, Xiao Qin (“Little Piano”) riding a flying golden crane, which opens the book and serves as a recurring motif.
AVM: I wanted [Da Qin] to wake from a dream sequence at the beginning of the book. The Yellow Crane Tower has a special significance in China. I asked Na if she’d been there; she said her mother used to take her in the spring, and she’d have dreams about the giant crane. Three years ago Na and I and our daughter went to visit Na’s hometown. When we visited the tower, we saw the giant mosaic inside [featuring] one of the gods with a long beard and flowing robe sitting on the crane.
What’s the significance of “Qin”—“piano” in your nicknames?
NL: In China, we give authority to the older generation to name children, and my maternal grandmother really liked pianos. She raised me, and she bought me that coat with the little white duck [stitched on it]. My friends weren’t able to afford a coat like that. It was very special.
Often, books that are written by Chinese-born Americans can be critical of Mao. However, in this book, Na’s family—and Na’s mother in particular—benefited from his policies, receiving medical care for polio, which her family would otherwise not have been able to afford.
AVM: In the book Mao has just died, and the girls’ parents have benefited from his leadership. Little White Duck is told from the child’s perspective, with her parents as the backdrop. I [showed Mao’s hero status in China at the time] with images, not words. That’s the beauty of comics. Na steered me to the emotional moment in the [reactions of the people to Mao’s death]. I wanted to capture that with [Da Qin’s] eyes and innocence. It drove me to do better work.
That scene in the book when Da Qin visits her father’s family in a rural village is so moving. The text and images really capture the girl’s desire to protect her coat and her wish to befriend the local children.
NL: I was a very small child. In my memory, there was a sequence of events that touched me on that trip. Through Andrés’s illustrations [it’s clear] that it was a great learning point. I’m impressed that Andrés [was able to visually express] that I didn’t want the other children to touch [the little white duck with their soiled hands], but at the same time I wanted them to feel something special; I knew those moments shouldn’t be [reserved] just for me. The illustrations connect all the dots…they’re very honest. Through these little stories, I realized my parents were teaching me life lessons. I’m raising a daughter now and I want to carry on that tradition…I want my daughter to be a great person!
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