After reading the graphic novel, Little White Duck, I wondered how someone who knew more about Chinese history than I do would react to it. I asked my husband to take a look and give me his opinion. And boy, did I get his opinion. I liked it so much I am posting it here. (While he has a B.A. in Chinese and an M.A. in Chinese History, Eric points out that he knows little-to-nothing about children's literature.)
“I think my life in China was pretty ordinary.” So begins a series of personal reflections from Na Liu, as told to her husband, award-winning graphic novelist Andrés Vera Martínez. Little White Duck: A Childhood in China, captures a range of childhood emotions in a historical context and perspective that seem at once authentic and--to an American audience, at least--anything but ordinary.
After a brief intro, the authors relate Liu’s recollections of Chairman Mao’s death. Sentimental and moving, the grief of her parents at the passing of Mao Ye Ye (Grandpa Mao) is palpable and genuine. Even the frame in which the parents announce the sad news communicates a sense of fracture, as the revolutionary photo of Mao hanging on the wall behind them is placed between the speakers, making it impossible to miss Mao’s face as you scan left-to-right from the daughter’s perplexed look to her parent’s sad expressions.
But this is no gushing paean to Chairman Mao or the Chinese Communist Party. Little White Duck offsets sentimental reflections on the People’s Liberation Army treating her mother’s childhood polio with bitingly frank reminders of the excesses of Communist zeal (such as the Party’s call to exterminate pests such as sparrows, which precipitated a famine as locusts and other insects devoured the crops).
My favorite chapter deals with the heroic--and largely mythical--character of Lei Feng, a model soldier lionized by the Party as an example of selfless service. The Lei Feng episode is as hilarious as it is illustrative of the book’s keen sense of conflict between the idealism of the CCP and the tragic shortcomings of a revolutionary zeal that was all-too-often naïve.
Eager to follow Lei’s good example, Da Qin (Liu's childhood nickname) and her sister notice that a neighbor’s baby chicks seem thirsty in the hot, hot sun (how does a baby chick look when it’s thirsty?) and decide to perform a good deed worthy of the model soldier’s example--they force feed the baby chicks water from a drinking glass. The eyes of Martinez’s chicks capture both action and emotion, as chick after chick is lovingly drowned by the girls’ good intentions. Both girls strike a heroic pose as one says to the other, “Nice work” and “Thanks! You too.” The last frame shows the girls staring down at a cardboard box containing a half dozen moribund chicks, looking somewhat like yellow tennis balls with tiny feet pointing upward. Da Qin exclaims, “Uh-oh. What’s happening?” as her sister, still wearing a Lei Feng army hat, suggests that they hide. A page turn reveals a full-page spread of Martinez’s stylized reproductions of vintage posters proclaiming (in Chinese) “Learn from Lei Feng’s Good Example” (学习雷锋好榜样) and other such slogans, designed to strike a wry humor somewhere between idealism and cynicism. (At least, it did for me.)
Martinez’s bold lines and muted tones set a mood of quiet reflection; one that fits perfectly the bittersweet nature of these stories. Though the narratives seem a bit disjointed to me (two of the stories are out of chronological order, which sent me flipping back through the book just to re-orient myself), the chapters dealing with Mao’s death, the Lei Feng chapter I described above, and the final chapter (I won’t give this one away) provide enough of a framework to hold the other seemingly random recollections together.
All in all, though, I would say that Little White Duck will speak to anyone who has ever been a child--even if you don’t know much about China--and will give you more to think about than you might expect from a graphic novel intended for a young audience.
Little White Duck: A Childhood in China
by Na Liu and Andrés Vera Martínez
published by Graphic Universe
Recommended for ages 10 and up