Monday, November 9, 2015
Leaving China: An Artist Paints His World War II Childhood, by James McMullan. Algonquin, Thomas Allen & Son. 2014. $26.95 ages 12 and up
Two things jumped out at me when I finished reading this book. What? James McMullan is Jim McMullan who illustrated I Stink! (Harper, 2014)? - and - If you are wanting your middle and high school students to learn about memoir writing, have I got a book for you!
I pored over the pages of this book, learning about missionary work in China, the outbreak of war and its effect on the McMullan family, travel, bullying, family and the birth of an artist.
Family life was calm and peaceful for the first few years of James' life. Then, the occupation of China by Japan threw that life into chaos. By the time he was 7, their British family was being warned that escape was their only option. He and his mother travelled to Seattle, and then to British Columbia where they lived with relatives while his father joined and served in the British army. Over the next four years many changes had an effect on the young boy. New homes meant new schools, resulting in bullying and intimidation for the young student whose proclivity for athletics was a nonentity. A reunion for his parents in India meant another boarding school for James. Because of his artistic abilities, he found new friends and shares some of his strong memories of that time. His father's accidental death resulted in a return to Salt Spring Island when he was just 11. By then, he had lived in four countries and travelled extensively - far more than most children at that time.
I applaud the design: each episode shared from his early life is presented in single titled pages of text, accompanied by pen-and-ink watercolors that match the text and tone perfectly. The endpapers display a map of his travels, across continents and back again. You will surely have your own favorite illustration, as so many are worthy of intense study. Though it is not full of great joy and happiness, it is a story that helps young adult readers understand the way that our experiences (both ordinary and not so) determine the path our lives are likely to take. Aspiring artists will find much to admire here.
A postscript, and acknowledgments are appended.