leaving china …a poignant, artistic biography

leaving china cover image james mcmullanLeaving China: An Artist Paints His World War II Childhood, written and illustrated by James McMullan
published in 2014 by Algonquin Young Readers
113 pages

I’ve just finished reading this intriguing, moving memoir by the highly-regarded artist, James McMullan, and it’s one of those rare finds in the book world that I hope many of you will take in as well.

What’s it about, and why do I call it a rare find?

It’s a set of over 50 brief vignettes describing McMullan’s childhood through age 12,  a beautifully crafted string of  moments, people, emotions, places, awarenesses, family history, culture, encountered in his most unusual life.

He was born in China in 1934, the grandson of two China Inland Mission leaving china illustration by james mcmullanmissionaries. By the time James was born, his father was involved in a secular business and the family led a very comfortable, privileged life in Cheefoo.

Massive changes took place, of course, at the onset of World War II. James and his mother managed to leave China on nearly the last ship out, and began a strange, wandering life together during the war years. From Shanghai to San Francisco, Vancouver to Darjeeling, the many leaving china illustration2 by james mcmullanfascinating, diverse, waystops were full of transitoriness and utter newness and loneliness. There were bright spots and warm friendships, but his mother’s alcoholism and his acute awareness of falling short of his father’s expectations  acted as sort of a dragging anchor.

Despite the somewhat melancholy nature of some of these memories, this is not a bitter, tattling memoir. There is a gentle, wistful, respectful quality to McMullan’s writings which allow us a thought-provoking, highly-personal leaving china illustration3 by james mcmullanglimpse of an  especially multicultural, uprooted childhood.

Each short narration is accompanied by one of McMullan’s evocative paintings, which act as snapshots of these diverse locations and experiences. They are nostalgic viewpoints — with an amethyst haze present throughout, tying the pieces together and creating a sense of cool reserve, of slightly fuzzy recollection. The effect of the narration and illustration together is quite mesmerizing.

Okay, why is it a rare find?

It feels like a difficult book to market and peg, and I am grateful to Algonquin for publishing it anyway.

My library has shelved it with children’s biography, which I think is a mistake. My guess is few children under age 12 will appreciate this in its entirety. So, for starters, this is a 12-and-up, picture book biography. A wonderful species. I wish there were more of them.

Many teens will connect with this, but adults — you will also love it. Please do not

James McMullan

James McMullan

be put off by the fact that it is illustrated nor sold as “children’s literature.” I think adults are a great audience for this book.

Here’s who I highly recommend it for:

*anyone with a transitory, multi-cultural childhood — that’s you, TCKs
*those whose artistic natures cause them to feel less understood
*folks with an interest in China, the China Inland Mission, or the Pacific theater of World War II
*anyone who loves a good memoir

I do hope many of you will find your way to this book. It’s a great read. If you like, there’s an album of McMullan’s old family photos which were references for some of his illustrations at his website