Little White Duck: A Childhood in China by Na Liu and Andres Vera Martinez

I mentioned previously that the Cybils graphic novels categories had two memoirs this year, and Little White Duck was the middle grade selection. It’s the story of Na Liu’s childhood growing up in 1970s China, beginning near the end of Mao Zedong’s life. Rather than tell one linear story, she instead chooses to show us her early life in a series of vignettes, some more engrossing than others.
The vignettes cover a range of incidents, some touching upon major national events (Chairman Mao’s death, the great famine), others relaying a more personal, familial story (a visit to some poorer cousins, a mistake with some chicks while attempting to emulate elders). Through these very short stories, Liu makes the reader aware of the how different her childhood was from our own childhoods in a different place and time. Importantly, though, she also makes us realize what we hold in common: love of family, childhood fears and jealousies and confusion, the need to impress the adults around you.
Vignette-style stories are always a risk, in much the same way that short story collections are: it’s very unlikely all stories are going to be knock-it-outta-the-park incredible. The vignettes in Little White Duck are a bit uneven, some memorable, some not. What is consistently excellent, though, is the art. Wow, this is some gorgeous art. Everything about it is beautiful: shapes, colors, expression. I could pore over these pages and completely ignore the words and I’d be a happy reader. It’s easily digestible art, too: not cartoony, but not too photo-realistic either. I know some kids who would really dig it.
For kids inquisitive about another (real!) place and time, this would be a great choice. And the vignette style could be a real plus for kids who sometimes struggle to read what can seem like very long chapter-less graphic novels (or the longer chapters in traditional novels).
I tried to think of some good readalikes, but really, Abby gave me plenty: The Wall by Peter Sis, Kampung Boy by Lat, Drawing from Memory
by Allen Say. Her Goodreads post has a few more.
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