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Little White Duck
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About the Author

Na Liu is a doctor of hematology and oncology. She moved from Wuhan, China, to Austin, Texas, in 1998 to work as a research scientist for MD Anderson Cancer Center. She met her husband, Andres Vera Martinez, in Austin. Na Liu and Andres Vera Martinez live in Brooklyn, New York, with their daughter, Mei Lan. They take annual trips to visit their families in Wuhan and Austin.

Reviews

Based on her childhood experiences, Na Liu and her husband have created a rich, multilayered memoir, incorporating history, geography, language, culture, and mythology into eight short stories; then weaving them together to create an exquisite tapestry of life in China during the 1970s. The work follows a logical progression, capturing youthful experiences against a broad Chinese landscape. Background information establishes each story and seamlessly segues into personal reminiscence, with excellent interweaving of each section. For example, the introductory dream sequence features Na Liu and her sister flying on a crane's back over panoramic China. The first narrative panel depicts the girls' awakening, with a painting of a white crane visible behind their bed. Mythological origins of New Year transition into an account of the family's celebration, with red banners and a dragon puppet echoing the colors and patterns from the previous holiday description. Scenes of daily life are juxtapostioned against the political climate, retelling simple stories through comic panels that can be enjoyed by young readers, but also delivering interesting perspectives and biting commentary on social issues. The grim realities of government propaganda, social class, and family dynamics make the memoir even more poignant. Humor, as well as the plays on words, enlivens many of the sections. The children's expressive faces provide a personal reaction to these contrasting points of view. This picturesque treasure introduces Chinese culture through a personal perspective that is both delightful and thought-provoking. --starred, School Library Journal

-- "Journal"

A doctor of oncology and hematology, author Liu was born in China in 1973, and her life there for more than 20 years provides plenty of odd autobiographical tidbits for this graphic novel inspired by her experiences. Aimed toward kids, Liu's story captures life in China in the experience of one child, showing how even the broadest governmental policies and cultural standards affect an individual's smallest moments. These darker corners give Liu's reminiscence its power: strict Chinese one-child laws, the graphic misfortune of animals in China, the poverty and surliness of Liu's rural relatives. Yet while the landscape is different, the children's escapades are the same as those of kids today. This is the result of a husband-and-wife collaboration, and the emotional bond of the partnership is clear on every page. Liu is a calm storyteller whose words are enlivened by Martinez's enthusiastic and energetic art, and their respective tones complement each other fluidly. Martinez's work is a loving depiction of his wife in childhood, providing atmosphere through not only his period details in the stories, but also the between-story spreads that broaden the reader's scope in understanding life in China at that time. --Publishers Weekly

-- "Journal"

A striking glimpse into Chinese girlhood during the 1970s and '80s.

Beginning with a breathtaking dream of riding a golden crane over the city of Wuhan, China, Liu Na, recounts her subsequent waking only to discover that Chairman Mao has passed away. The 3-year-old finds this difficult to process and understand, although she is soon caught up in the somber mood of the event. From there, her life unfolds in short sketches. With this intimate look at her childhood memories, Liu skillfully weaves factual tidbits into the rich tapestry of her life. In the section titled 'The Four Pests, ' she explains about the four pests that plague China--the rat, the fly, the mosquito and the cockroach (with an additional explanation of how the sparrow once made this list, and why it is no longer on it)--and her stomach-turning school assignment to catch rats and deliver the severed tails to her teacher. In 'Happy New Year! The Story of Nian the Monster, ' she explains the origins of Chinese New Year, her favorite holiday, and her own vivid, visceral reflections of it: the sights, sounds and smells. Extraordinary and visually haunting, there will be easy comparisons to Allen Say's Drawing from Memory (2011); think of this as the female counterpart to that work.

Beautifully drawn and quietly evocative. --starred, Kirkus Reviews

-- "Journal"

Americans today are used to a particular narrative when it comes to Communist China. In the beginning, Maoist ideals provide the Chinese protagonists with comfort and hope. Eventually, though, ideals give way to suffering.

My mother's family escaped from mainland China just as the Communist Party came to power. Growing up, I was steeped in this narrative through my family's stories. I opened Na Liu and Andres Vera Martinez's 'Little White Duck: A Childhood in China' expecting to encounter it once again.'Little White Duck' is a collection of eight autobiographical short stories from Liu's own childhood, illustrated as comics by Martinez. Liu grew up in China during the 1970s and '80s, then came to the United States in 1999 as a research scientist. Martinez is her American-born husband.Early in the book, a young Liu, nicknamed Da Qin (Big Piano), finds her parents in their kitchen. They tell her that her grandfather has passed away. Da Qin starts to cry, but can't figure out which grandfather they're mourning. Later, her family walks past a giant mural of Chairman Mao. 'Ooooh!' Da Qin says, pointing to the mural. 'That grandpa.'Da Qin's parents take her to a vigil for the deceased leader. 'My parents would explain that sad day to me many years later, ' Liu writes.I thought Liu would explain 'that sad day' in accordance with my family's stories: perhaps she would describe the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. Maybe Martinez would trace the ribs of a re-education camp victim with his delicate brush.Instead, Da Qin tells her family's stories. After her mother got polio, Mao's army performed multiple surgeries free and helped her to walk again. A government scholarship enabled her father to leave behind the backbreaking life of a farmer. Her parents married and made a prosperous life for their two children, Da Qin and her younger sister, Xiao Qin (Little Piano).At this point, I almost put the book down. Reading about the virtues of Chinese Communism felt like a betrayal of my family. However, Liu's writing and Martinez's cartooning compelled me to continue.'Little White Duck' isn't Communist propaganda. It is at once more innocent and more sophisticated. What Liu and Martinez do is convey a child's-eye view of a country in transition. Politics, culture and history play into their stories, but the reader's awareness of them is a child's awareness. The mural of Mao and the ancient gods and the colorful posters encouraging patriotic behavior are probably important, but fireworks, schemes to catch rats and pretty jackets with soft little white duck-shaped patches are so much more interesting.Liu and Martinez perfectly capture that childhood exuberance, but grown-up sensibilities nonetheless underlie their storytelling. Every so often, Martinez's panels give way to propagandistic images, forcing a dialogue between Da Qin's real life and the ideal life espoused by her government.Martinez maintains a beautiful hand-drawn quality throughout, even in his lettering. This makes the occasional intrusion of blatantly digital effects all the more jarring. In a scene in which Da Qin's family prepares for a New Year celebration, the Chinese calligraphy adorning the hallway is so clearly cut-and-pasted that it undermines the book's intimacy.'Little White Duck' closes with a wrenching tale of Da Qin's trip to the countryside, where she meets her father's relatives for the first time. Her cousins marvel at the soft little white duck-shaped patch on her pretty jacket. Then they blacken it with their dirty fingers. Instead of toys, they play with bugs. Their poverty leaves Da Qin speechless.By realizing that inequality exists even in the People's Republic, Da Qin the child begins to grow into Liu the adult. Perhaps 'Little White Duck' isn't so different from my family's stories after all. By the end of the book, though, I didn't really care, and that's the brilliance of what Liu and Martinez have done. Their characters are more than just pieces to be puzzled into someone else's narrative. They're living, breathing people. --The New York Times Book Review
-- "Newspaper"

Graphic memoirs are a cornerstone of the graphic-novel format, but rarely are they written with children as the primary audience. In eight short stories, Liu has done just that, giving younger readers a glimpse into her life growing up in China just after the death of Chairman Mao. By linking her stories to a teaching by Confucius that says one learns in three ways--by studying history, by imitating others, and through one's own experience--Liu shows how her parents survived the famine during China's Great Leap Forward, how the death of soldier Lei Feng influenced the behavior of Liu and her sister, and how a trip to the countryside to visit her relations helped Liu realize just how privileged her life in the city was. The stories are vivid even without Martinez's bold artwork that evokes both traditional Chinese scrolls and midcentury propaganda posters. The result is a memoir that reads like a fable, a good story with a moral that resonates. --Booklist Online

-- "Website"

This title travels through the childhood of Na Liu in Wuhan, China in eight delightful stories. The book is illustrated by her husband with colorful pen and ink drawings. The stories take Na and her sister from the death of Chairman Mao to a visit to her grandmother and relatives who live in the countryside. One of the stories explains the various symbols used during Chinese New Year. The China of her childhood is a different country from her parents'. This is a beautiful introduction to a China that few of us will ever understand. The book also contains a glossary of Mandarin Chinese words used as well as translations of Chinese characters in the various chapters. --starred, Library Media Connection

-- "Journal"

Wife-and-husband team Na Liu and Andres Vera Martinez use a graphic-novel format to bring Liu's childhood in 1970s Wuhan, China, to life for contemporary children.

Much will seem the same--family life with a younger sister, school, a visit with a semi-scary grandmother--but the particulars in the eight vignettes included here make all the difference. Liu recalls her uncontrollable (and uncomprehending) sobbing at the death of a 'grandpa' she did not really know, Chairman Mao; creativity and finally subterfuge is required when her teacher commands each student to bring in four rat tails as evidence of participation in the government campaign to rid the country of vermin. Illustrator Martinez gleefully pictures the sisters' elaborate fantasies for rat-trapping (like putting a soybean up the butt of one rat, sending it into a frenzy that will cause it to kill the rest of the pack) as well as their eventual mutual admittance that they can't even touch a rat to sever the required tail ('EEEYuu! GROSS!').

Author and illustrator together give us an unvarnished and intimate account of a real childhood: plain-speaking, rough-hewn, and very much down-to-earth. While the time and place the book depicts are very different from our own, there's not a hint of sentimentality or exoticism: the scene where the mother shames the girls into cleaning their plates by telling them the real story about starving children in China is simultaneously horrifying and hilarious. A glossary, a chronology, and an author's note provide context. --starred, The Horn Book Magazine

-- "Journal"
This extraordinary memoir offers readers a close-up picture of life in 1970s China.
Called 'Da Qin' ('Big Piano'), Na Liu was born near Wuhan, China, in 1973. The book opens as four-year-old Da Qin wakes up next to her younger sister. Thinking she'll be late for school, she grabs a cup, and heads outside to a spigot to brush her teeth. But there is no school today. It is September 6, 1976, and Chairman Mao has died. Unlike many books written by Chinese-born Americans about life under Mao, Na Liu's demonstrates the benefits of the regime to her family, especially to her mother who, paralyzed by polio as a girl, was able to walk again. Andres Vera Martinez (Babe Ruth), Na Liu's husband, co-author and the artist of the book, uses the graphic novel format to perfection, zeroing in on young Da Qin's face when she sees her parents' sorrow, and conveying the chairman's importance through wide-angle views of Mao's likeness on street murals and banners.
In the last and most moving chapter, 'Little White Duck, ' Da Qin insists on wearing her coat with a velvet white duck to her Baba's rural village. By the close of the book, Da Qin has learned firsthand of the disparities that her mother and father told her about, and gained compassion because of it. Liu and Martinez find the universal moments in the details of an exotic land, inviting readers to see themselves in Da Qin's experiences of friendship, family and country.
An extraordinary graphic novel-memoir by a husband-and-wife team offering a rare view of 1970s China. --Shelf Awareness
-- "Website"

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