Leaving China by James McMullan

Leaving-China-coverLynn:  We reviewers are supposed to be analytical about our reading and writing, assessing the elements of what we read and conveying those to you making decisions about what to read and purchase.  I try, really I do.  But sometimes a book comes along that I just love.  Period.  Leaving China:  An Artist Paints His WWII Childhood (Algonquin 2014) is just such a book.  I read the galley waaaay back in January and loved it even it its rough fuzzy black and white state.  When the hard cover full color book arrived I loved it without reserve.  So be warned.  It’s not that the book won’t stand up to analytic review because it does, it’s just that this book strikes a personal cord in me somehow and I have trouble dredging up my critical reviewer side.

This book is about journeys.  McMullen lived in China as a young child.  His extended family lived there; his grandparents first as missionaries and then as owners of a business that the sons ran.  The advent of war changed everything.  When the Japanese invaded China, McMullen’s father left to join the British army and James and his troubled mother began a long period of wandering that took them across the world with stops in his mother’s home in Canada and on to Bombay, Darjeeling, Calcutta, and back to China.  James was a shy quiet introverted boy who loved nothing more than to draw for hours.  His years of displacement were lonely miserable years but his artist’s eye was noticing the small moments of beauty around him.

I found the format of this book especially appealing.  It consists of 54 full-page full-color illustrations faced by a short vignette: a reflection on a moment, a place, a particular experience.  The passages are reflective and intimate, sometimes painful, sometimes sweet.  The illustrations are done in ink and watercolor with a muted palette and a  revealing use of light.  The sense of time and place is powerful as is the aching sense of a sad child searching for his own place in the world.

This is an unusual book but one that will speak loudly to kids experiencing this search for place.  It could be such a powerful book to use in the classroom, especially with its short essay format.  It is ideal for art teachers to use for those CCSS writing assignments, for English teachers teaching memoir or history teachers looking for primary sources.  Algonquin is a division of Workman and this is their first nonfiction in their new Young Readers imprint.  Don’t miss it.




About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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