Book review

Illustrator James McMullan draws readers into 'Leaving China: An Artist Paints His World War II Childhood'

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James McMullan is best known in children’s literature as the illustrator of “I Stink,” the picture book story of a garbage truck. His newest work is something quite different.

“Leaving China: An Artist Paints His World War II Childhood” (Algonquin Young Readers, $19.95, ages 12 to 18) tells the story of prewar colonial China. It also details the domino of events that slingshots the young artist across the world and back again.

Each “chapter” is a single page of simple, elegant prose, accompanied by an evocative painting on the facing page.

Mr. McMullan makes no apparent attempt to arrange the chapters into a pleasing narrative structure, as so many memoirs do. Instead, the story arc is long, slow and incomplete, reflecting the randomness of childhood memories.

Each page is a vignette, a moment, leaving ample blank canvas for the reader/viewer to fill up with his or her own imagination. This may come as a shock to young readers accustomed to an abundance of stimuli, such as iPads, computer screens and graphic novels aimed at keeping short attention spans engaged.

This is not a book for short attention spans. It is a book full of space.

It opens with the surreal recounting of Mr. McMullan’s earliest memory — of being bitten by a neighbor’s German shepherd.

He then goes back in time to tell of his missionary grandparents’ coming from Ireland to China. They accumulated wealth and status in colonial Cheefoo. In the next generations, different branches of the family move in different directions until James is born in 1934.

Signs of war are visible from the start of James’ life. His parents attempt to remain within the bubble of their privileged lifestyle in Cheefoo.

But as the Japanese army invades and its grip tightens on the city, it becomes clear that the family must flee. James’ father joins the British army, and James, age 10, and his mother leave on the second-to-last ship from Shanghai, China, to America.

The rest of the book covers a time when James was conveyed from San Francisco to Seattle to Vancouver (in Canada’s British Columbia), to New York, to Darjeeling, India, to Chungking, China, and then starting the circle around the globe again as he returns to Shanghai, and eventually to Vancouver.

He bounces from public school to boarding school, from city to city, living with relatives and with his mother’s many prestigious friends, waiting for news from his father.

Throughout, young James continuously fails to live up to his parents’ expectations when it comes to physical prowess. Meanwhile, his interest and talent for art and drawing grow.

In his earliest youth in Cheefoo, he studies Chinese scroll paintings. In Grand Forks, Vancouver, James crosses paths with an exiled Russian artist and he watches the painter work, fascinated.

He manages the harsh social landscape of boarding school adolescence by entertaining other boys with drawings of comic book characters.

At first, the vignettes of life in Cheefoo seem unrelated. James’ parents hold lavish parties. James and his Chinese nanny stumble upon a dead body on the beach; American Navy officers visit Cheefoo.

As the story progresses, the reader/viewer begins to see a thread of continuity, as hints of war build into the cascade of events that carry the narrator through a tumultuous childhood.

Similarly, the paintings grow in impact as one moves through the book. At first glance, the illustrations are simple, static snapshots, compared with the constant barrage of motion to which we have become accustomed.

But as the din of the digital world around us fades away, and the reader/viewer settles into the cool purple shadows of Mr. McMullan’s artwork, significance and poignancy grow.

The artist uses deliberately blurred watercolor edges to represent separateness. As 10-year-old James and his mother sail away from Shanghai, they are surrounded by a pale halo against the blue of the ocean, reaching for the father fading into the background.

Later, in Vancouver, James visits his mother on weekends away from his English-style boarding school. His mother’s money is running out, and the growing boy begins to sense the true weight of her alcoholism and the disarray of her life.

The illustration of his mother curled up on the sofa is full of fuzzy purple and orange shadows smudging into the green carpet. Only the boy’s book is shadowless.

“Leaving China” is a fascinating book. Its protagonist is a young boy, but the narrator is the mature man he grows into. This gives the memories an objective, removed quality. The feelings and experiences of Mr. McMullan’s younger self are reported accurately and unemotionally, yet poetically.

Although the illustrations may appeal at first to a younger audience, this book is best for a mature middle school or high school reader. The prose is straightforward enough but sprinkled with vocabulary gems such as peripatetic, surreptitiously, inoculation and artillery.

Reading level aside, the book touches openly on a wide array of gruesome subjects. Mr. McMullan’s grandparents get their start rescuing baby girls abandoned during famine.

Later, James falls from a train bunk and gashes his head open. The wound is stitched up without anesthesia at a military hospital in India. These are just some of the scenes not for the weak of heart.

For the seasoned reader, this book will be a treat to savor. Read it once for the deliciously sensory vignettes. Re-read between the lines for the historical context and perspective.

Mr. McMullan’s story is told honestly from the naïve and often closed perspective of a young boy getting his first glimpses of the wider world. But the wisdom and worldliness of the fully grown narrator add moments of broader clarity to the child’s narrow observations.

World War II from the Asian arena is not something often taught in American schools. This book opens a wealth of questions and piques the interest to learn more.

This is a book that redefines the role of both author and illustrator and challenges reader/viewers to engage with the story and fill it up with their own questions and imagination.

Ruth Spurlock is a children’s library assistant at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s main branch in Oakland.

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