Little White Duck: A Childhood in China is a picture book, a slight modification on the graphic novel punctuated with some Chinese language characters. The book shares memories of the author Na Liu of what she saw as a young child in China in the 1970s, of China emerging from old traditions to become a modern nation as she grew up.
The book is co-authored by Liu’s husband Andres Vera Martinez. Martinez is the illustrator in this collaboration. This thin volume of artful illustration and the eight main short stories of Liu’s memories of China draw upon Chinese culture and scholarship including poetry by the Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong.
The illustrations should be lauded as “authentic.” In the story, “March 5 is Lei Feng Day,” familiar are the soldier uniforms and poster-like renditions of children celebrating Lei Feng. Hailed as the model Communist solider, the inspiration of Feng might help recall the “great campaigns” in China during the Chinese Revolution.
Liu tells her stories through two little girls, the older sister Da Qin (Big Piano) and the younger sister Xiao Qin (Little Piano). Qin is the Chinese instrument for piano. Da Qin and Xiao Qin devise their family lives in children’s adventures. Da Qin dreams of flying on a crane at night alluding to the Yellow Crane Tower that sits along the Chang, the Yangtze River, in Wuhan, the city in which the two young sisters and their parents live.
In other stories, we learn of The Famine that plagued China from the Great Leap Forward to the Cultural Revolution. We also learn of the history behind the Chinese New Year—that the fireworks, the red banners, and the lion dance come from the legend of Nian.
Liu’s story of “Little White Duck” underlines the economic differences in the story between urban China and the rural villages in China. Da Qin’s father takes her to visit his home village. Village children are shocked by Da Qin’s new coat and the velvet white duck that adorns the coat. The children all touch the white duck and dirties it as a result.
Little White Duck is not just a compilation of memories of a common childhood. It is also a world engrossed in the politics of a people. Liu remembers the nation when Chairman Mao passed away. The country mourned. What we behold of Mao and the Communist history in modern China would matter to this personal memoir by an author, Na Liu, whom China nourished in her childhood.