Leaving China by James McMullan — a book to savor

Leaving-China-coverTitle: Leaving China: an artist paints his World War II childhood

Author/Illustrator: James McMullan

Publisher: Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin, 2014

Genre: Autobiography; illustrated book for older kids

Audience Age: 8 and up (including adults)

Themes/Topics: Author/Artist’s early life; China during World War II; Art and growing up

Opening Sentences: “My earliest memory is of throwing a grape. I was a two-year-old playing on the stucco porch of a neighbor’s house early one morning. I picked up a grape from a fruit bowl and threw it for their German shepherd dog to chase…”

Synopsis: This book is filled with evocative, detailed watercolors and accompanying single-page reminiscences of James McMullan’s boyhood in China before and during World War II. Jim is now a renowned artist and illustrator who works in many media and in many formats. My readers may be most familiar with his collaborations with his wife, Kate McMullan, on their popular series of picture books, I’M DIRTY; I’M MIGHTY; I STINK; etc. but his work goes far beyond these books.

In Leaving China, Jim tells the story of his early life, his attempts to please and impress a demanding father and a social-climbing mother, and of “gradually finding his strength in art and a way to be in the world that was not his father’s or his mother’s idea of a man’s life.” (Quotation is from the first story, Throwing a Grape.)

Actually, the book goes far further back than Jim’s childhood, beginning with his grandparents who arrived in China in 1887 as missionaries – who soon found that their service to the people was best expressed in rescuing girl babies who had been exposed to the elements and left to die, for the simple crime against government and society of being born female. The stories and illustrations that tell of this are at once poignant, practical, and pointed, showing how Jim’s grandparents grew personally and as a business by serving the true needs of the people. These chapters also illustrate the dichotomy in the family’s presence in China – on the one hand serving as missionaries, but on the other, developing and growing a business.

Jim was born in 1934, and his early memories are of a pampered life in the family compound, with servants, music, parties – a sharp contrast to the stark mission-focused life of some of his relatives.

His memories are colored by his artistic sensibilities, which come through not only in the glorious watercolors, but in his richly evocative words:

“These memories of late afternoon, when I played with my toys as my father sat at the baby grand and casually sang or experimented, doodling out some variation on the melody, happened at that moment when the sun coming through the tall windows would be carved into clear rectangles on the carpet into which I could steer my trucks and cars as if they were entering a city of light.” (Page 28)

“…idly looking at the complicated scenes depicted in the painted scrolls on the living-room walls. … They were painted in subtle variations of brown and ochre but seemed amazingly full of air and space. I was fascinated by the way brushstrokes could become rocky outcroppings or twisted tree trunks or flowers or flowing robes. The images were all so quiet and subdued but somehow so alive.” (Page 44)

In stark contrast to such idyllic scenes painted in both watercolor and word are the chapters that deal realistically with the coming of war – but from a child’s perspective. These chapters make personal all the terrifying events of that period. Add to that the keenly felt separation from father and then from home, and the reader is caught up in the feelings, not just the events, of the time.

Also in contrast to the light of earlier chapters is the darkness felt in the expressions of Jim’s feelings of inadequacy, of his artistic and non-athletic temperament not measuring up to his father’s ideal of a “manly man;” the difficulties of fitting in to the new ways of his mother’s home in Canada, where they traveled to be safe from the encroaching terrors of war; the questions in his mind about both his parents, and about how he fit in to all of this.

There were times of joy in those war years as well, with times with relatives on Salt Spring Island off the coast of British Columbia, Canada, detailed in painting and word so vividly that you see the scenes in the text as clearly as those depicted in the illustrations. Jim McMullan is truly multi-talented.

In the acknowledgements at the end of the book, Jim says, “Writing this story and painting these pictures has been one of the most significant and rewarding experiences of my life.” Experiencing the book is equally rewarding for the reader.

For Further Enrichment: A wonderful exercise for kids and adults alike would be to thoughtfully depict scenes in their own lives, both in art and in word. In this, I would urge people (young and old) not to be intimidated by the thought of “creating art,” but instead to allow themselves the freedom to explore the colors, lights, darks, moods of their memories, and to express them on paper without any thought of judgment, either by others or by themselves.

There is a wonderful review of this book in the New York Times, at this link.

You can read more about Jim at his website.

Come back to my blog next Friday to read my interview with Jim!

Availability: Readily available in hardcover. If you don’t have an indie bookseller nearby, why not order it from Canio’s in Sag Harbor or BookHampton in the Hamptons area of Long Island, and know that your copy is coming from an area that provides Jim with a sense of “emotional centeredness.” (page 110) 

8 thoughts on “Leaving China by James McMullan — a book to savor”

  1. I loved this memoir… in part because of my time in China, but mostly because of the unusual format mixing longish text with Jim’s incredible illustrations on each spread. The scenes were textually and pictorially so vivid!

    1. You express it perfectly, Joanna — “textually and pictorially so vivid” — YES! I’m glad you’ve read it, too. It’s a wonderful book.

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top