Book Review: Leaving China: an Artist Paints HIs World War II Childhood

Every once in awhile a book comes across my desk that catches my attention and draws me into its story and its mood in a way that I know will stay for a long while. Such is the case with Leaving China: an Artist Paints His World War II Childhood (March, 2014), a new memoir by acclaimed artist and illustrator James McMullen. As McMullen turns 80 this year, the book is yet another in the huge, but ultimately finite, catalog of first-hand accounts of what it was like to live in the midst of the Second World War.

McMullen was born in China in 1934, the grandson of British missionaries who settled there and, in the midst of spreading the Word, founded an orphanage whose residents produced handiwork that eventually found a worldwide market. The missionaries’ children, including James’ father, then expanded that market into a thriving export business that allowed for a very gracious lifestyle in colonial China–the world into which “Jimmy” was born. All of that changed when the Japanese seized control of China in the 1930s. Soon Jimmy and his mother were sent to Canada to live with her relatives while his father enlisted with the Allied forces. Over the next decade the two lead a peripatetic existence, living in various places in Canada, India, back in China, and ultimately the United States.

During this period of his life, Jimmy becomes acutely aware that he is often out-of-step with the world in which he lives and with his parents hopes and expectations for him. Although he knows he is loved, he also knows that he is a sometimes a disappointment to them because he is not physically robust, not tough, not social. Instead he is shy, introspective, and interested in art. Happily, once he grows up, he is able to shed those expectations, pursue his talents, and find fulfillment.

The story unfolds over 54 double-page spreads. On the left is succinct, accessible text explaining a “chapter” in McMullen’s story. An evocative illustration on the right accompanies each entry. The text and the illustration bear equal weight in the story—one supports the other. If one were missing, the story would be only half there.

So, when I finished reading this, my initial thoughts were two. First was that, “I love this book. It is a great story about so many things—history, family, growing up, and, ultimately, finding oneself in the midst of others’ expectations.” Second was that, “I don’t know that this will have huge appeal with the middle grade market for whom it is intended. “ Clearly, this is not a flash and dazzle book that students will clamor for. Rather, it is one of those gems to which teachers and librarians will need to lead their students. There are numerous curricular possibilities for it under the Common Core umbrella. But, ultimately, it doesn’t matter if this is a big hit or not. If it makes its way into the hands of any young person with whom it resonates, it will have found its mark. I trust that it will.

Blogger: Ann G.