Featured image of post _Watercress_


Cover of
4–8 years
Andrea Wang
Jason Chin
30 March 2021
32 pages

Publisher’s summary

Driving through Ohio in an old Pontiac, a young girl’s parents stop suddenly when they spot watercress growing wild in a ditch by the side of the road. Grabbing an old paper bag and some rusty scissors, the whole family wades into the muck to collect as much of the muddy, snail covered watercress as they can.

At first, she’s embarrassed. Why can’t her family get food from the grocery store? But when her mother shares a story of her family’s time in China, the girl learns to appreciate the fresh food they foraged. Together, they make a new memory of watercress.

Andrea Wang tells a moving autobiographical story of a child of immigrants discovering and connecting with her heritage, illustrated by award winning author and artist Jason Chin, working in an entirely new style, inspired by Chinese painting techniques. An author’s note in the back shares Andrea’s childhood experience with her parents.

In Environmental Education

Foraging is often used in environmental education to draw attention to plants and their usefulness to people. Picking and tasting plants is a great way to get people to look at their surroundings in a new light and gives them another way to interact with nature. It also encourages people to value natural spaces. To a forager, hedgerows are more than green walls, they are sources of fresh fruit to eat or cook with–for free! Recognizing and gathering edible plants might be more than a relaxing past time, it can also be an important way to put more on the dinner table without adding to the grocery bill.

This book offers a different perspective on foraging, highlighting reasons why some might avoid or react badly to activities about picking their own food from outside. The book’s descriptive language about muck, damp, and snails does not paint a particularly appetizing picture of the main character’s experience. How many people view any outdoor or natural space in the same light? Then there is the fact that the girl in the story wants to fit in. She worries about the other kids seeing her picking plants in a ditch and thinking her family is poor. She wants to have grocery store food like the others at her school.

Another positive about this book is that it depicts a community-specific experience in a way which is also accessible to those who aren’t part of that community. While the book is about a Chinese family living in a mostly White community in America, many of the themes will resonate with immigrant communities anywhere. Kids living in cities may also see a little of themselves in the way the girl reacts to being forced to pick plants from the mud for dinner.

Watercress is also about the ways people relate to nature and interact with it. In the story, an outdoor experience is made negative by a desire to be accepted by others. The main character is worried that others will think their family interacts with nature in the wrong way. Then she learns more about her family and why they value nature and interact with it in the way that they do. This transforms the experience into something not entirely positive, but deeply meaningful. As readers, we can imagine how that experience might be taken forward and help the main character become more resilient in the face of pressure to feel like nature and outdoor spaces are not for people like her.

Activity ideas

Read together before heading outside

Kids who are worried about getting muddy or dirty could discuss how the characters in the story feel about wading in the ditch with bare feet and compare that with how they might feel.

  • How do the parents and brother feel compared to the young girl?
  • How might the young girl feel the next time they pull over to pick watercress?

Paint raw ingredients

The paintings in Watercress are beautiful. The watercolour brush strokes used to give the reader a sense of the plants without being too fussy with details. Take inspiration from the illustrations to draw or paint other vegetables as they might look growing in the ground or freshly picked. Experiment with shapes or sizes of brush stroke to give the impression of the leaves of different herbs.

Develop descriptive language to convey emotion

The author makes great use of description to give you a clear idea of how the young girl feels about gathering plants from a ditch, without needing to tell you directly. Kids could experiment with changing the desciptive language in the story to give the same meaning, but express different emotions. The book also vivivdly describes the taste of the watercress in a way which conveys the characters emotions. Kids could take inspiration from the book to describe foods they’ve eaten in ways which give the reader an idea for how they were feeling.

I take a bite of the watercress and it bites me back with its spicy, peppery taste. It is delicate and slightly bitter, like Mom’s memories of home.

Sharing stories

An important moment is when the mother tells stories of her life back in China. Kids can talk to relatives about their memories of plants they liked to eat when they were young. Are there plants they used to eat more that they don’t have as much now? Did they ever pick leaves or berries to eat?

Class recipe book

Kids write and share recipes for their own favourite ways to have vegetables. They could then refer to books on foraging or edible plants to identify ingredients which can be collected from the wild. An extra challenge might be to develop a new recipe from only foraged ingredients.

  • Herbs like oregano and thyme in a pizza sauce could be foraged.
  • Lettuce might be replaced with plants like chickweed, violets, or dandelion leaves.
  • Lemony sour flavour can be provided by wood sorrel or common sorrel.

Give watercress a taste!

Watercress is a versatile plant which can be used in the same ways a spinach, adding a peppery/radishy/bitter note to recipies. Try it:

  • Raw with thinly-sliced apple in a honey mustard dressing
  • Steamed and tossed in soy sauce and sesame oil
  • Stir-fried with garlic and ginger

Further exploration of themes in the book

Background information on the Great Famine in China - NPR (10 November, 2012)

Black absence in green spaces - Opinion piece in the Ecologist by Beth Collier (10 October, 2019)

Balancing the needs of nature and people in an urban park. Discussion with Ken Greenway about topics including foraging and managing it in an urban park. - Knowing Nature Episode 50

More about the book

Andrea Wang’s website page about the book - AndreaYWang.com

Listen to Andrea Wang talk about the book and how her experiences informed the story. Andrea also provides some discussion prompts and activity ideas. - TeachingBooks

More classroom activity ideas curated by TeachingBooks - TeachingBooks

Author Andrea Wang and illustrator Jason Chin talk about the book - YouTube

Tried any activities?

If you’ve used this book with your class we’d love to hear about it! Photos, stories, comments, or suggestions. We love them all!

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