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Leaving China

An Artist Paints His World War II Childhood

By James McMullan

A memoir in paintings and words by internationally acclaimed illustrator, author, and teacher James McMullan.

A Booklist Top 10 Biography for Youth

“It is this dreamlike quality of my memories that I wanted to capture in some way in the paintings that accompany the text--to suggest in the images that the events occurred a long time ago in a simpler yet more exotic world, and that the players in that world, including me, are at a distance.”

Artist James McMullan’s work has appeared in the pages of virtually every American magazine, on the posters for more than seventy Lincoln Center theater productions, and in bestselling picture books. Now, in a unique memoir comprising more than fifty short essays and illustrations, the artist explores how his early childhood in China and wartime journeys with his mother influenced his whole life, especially his painting and illustration.

James McMullan was born in Tsingtao, North China, in 1934, the grandson of missionaries who settled there. As a little boy, Jim took for granted a privileged life of household servants, rickshaw rides, and picnics on the shore—until World War II erupted and life changed drastically. Jim’s father, a British citizen fluent in several Chinese dialects, joined the Allied forces. For the next several years, Jim and his mother moved from one place to another—Shanghai, San Francisco, Vancouver, Darjeeling—first escaping Japanese occupation then trying to find security, with no clear destination except the unpredictable end of the war. For Jim, those ever-changing years took on the quality of a dream, sometimes a nightmare, a feeling that persists in the stunning full-page, full-color paintings that along with their accompanying text tell the story of Leaving China.

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James McMullan headshot

James McMullan

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Review quotes

“A compelling and intricate tale.” —

“The complex family relationships are carefully and delicately described, and details of the history of the period . . . are intriguing. The artwork nicely balances the text . . . And beyond their aesthetic qualities, the paintings bring significant emotional and cultural context to this story of a young artist’s struggle for self-acceptance.” —

“Evocative . . . McMullan brings his early years alive through sprightly prose and the delicate, violet-tinged paintings that grace every page.” —Entertainment Weekly

“[A] compelling story . . . Leaving China is a collection of 55 short stories, each illustrated with a stunning full-page watercolor impressionistically illuminating McMullan’s recollections.” —

“Who knew that behind all those wonderful watercolors I have admired since coming to New York are all these magic memories of childhood? It is like finding pearls inside unexpected shells.” —Peter Sis, author of The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain

“[McMullan] tells his tumultuous story in a series of spreads with a one-page essay facing a full-page illustration. This structure gives the reader time to exhale and contemplate between emotional episodes. There are soldiers in the streets, long painful separations, and quiet pleasures. The publisher recommends the book for ages 12 and up. I hope it finds the large audience it deserves among the ‘ups.’” —The Boston Globe

“Fascinating . . . Deeply affecting.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune

Leaving China is a beautiful book . . . The selection of events and scenes is unerring. The prose and the art go together remarkably.” —E. L. Doctorow

“The exquisite full-color pictures are filled with air and space, reminiscent of the Chinese scrolls that fascinated him as a child. These pictures and the evocative text are a happy exercise in harmony. A fascinating, seamless portrait of a young life and the wartime world that will have appeal not only to young readers but to adults as well.” —Booklist (starred review)

“[A] poignant memoir . . . Delicate layers of pale green, soft lavender, and rich ocher tones bleed and blend into deep violet shadows--a subtle visual nod to the themes of nostalgia, isolation, and loss explored throughout the work. McMullan’s compositions are both quiet and stirring in their depiction of a lonely little boy struggling to find his place in a chaotic and often unkind world.” —School Library Journal

“James McMullan's book is so hauntingly evocative that it made me nostalgic for a time and a place I never experienced.” —Gene Luen Yang, author of American Born Chinese

Product Details
Age range
12 - 18
Grade range
7 - 12
Number of pages
Publication date
March 25, 2014