Designer and illustrator James McMullan has led a distinguished career in the field of illustration. He was an early member of the Pushpin Studios, the well-known illustration and graphic design studio founded in part by Milton Glaser and Seymour Chwast in New York City in 1954. McMullan went on to do editorial illustration for such magazines as TIME, Rolling Stone, and New York Magazine. His famed theater posters for the Lincoln Center were part of a 2012 exhibition at New York’s School of Visual Arts, where he taught for 30 years, even developing the High-Focus Drawing Program there in 1987. And his illustrations have appeared in many children’s books. I Stink!, written by his wife Kate, received a New York Times Best Illustrated Book award in 2002.  

The world of disco even has McMullan to thank for the five illustrations he did over 30 years ago for New York magazine that inspired the overall look for the iconic 1977 movie Saturday Night Fever.

His newest book, however, is an altogether different endeavor. Leaving China, on shelves next week, is a memoir aimed at older readers, filled with short vignettes about his boyhood in North China. As the grandson of U.K. missionaries and the son of a businessman, McMullan lived a privileged life in 1930s' Cheefoo, a port on the Shantung peninsula—at least until the launch of World War II when his father headed to war and he and his mother set off to escape Japanese occupation.

But before he gets to that part of his story, McMullan steps back to detail the radical work of his grandparents, who saved the lives of baby girls born and discarded at the edge of Cheefoo, a city too destitute to take care of all its newborns. The two later built an orphanage next to a school, even selling the embroidered products the abandoned girls were taught to make and eventually instituting the James McMullan Company.

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These were the origins of the family business into which McMullan’s father assumed a role. McMullan recalls his childhood with his step-siblings in China; the stress of pre-war life then (“there was so much anxiety pushed under the rug in those years, so much hushed talk of atrocities committed by the Japanese or by the warlords”); his father’s departure to fight with the Allied forces in the war; and much more. Each memory is accompanied by a watercolor illustration, and each spread—vignette plus painting—serves as a brief episode and impressionistic glimpse into McMullan’s childhood. Yet it all adds up to a story remarkable in its clarity.

“My early years were so different than the life I began to lead in New York in my twenties,” McMullan told me when I asked him what compelled him to write this memoir now, “that they almost seemed sealed off, like a slightly unreal story that I would refer to occasionally in little bits and pieces. Three years ago, I found a box of letters that my father and mother wrote to each other during World War ll. Reading them set my mind going to try to remember more about the past and fill in as many spaces as I could between the most vivid events. That started my writing down the story, and very quickly I began to see the accompanying images in my mind. This remembering and writing and painting were a long time coming, but once it began, I realized how much I had wanted to sum up those years in words and pictures. It was a very self-motivated book.”

McMullan describes the writing and illustrating of this book as a “catharsis.” It’s an honest and compelling story, as he looks back on his parents with the keen eye of an adult coming to terms with the emotional inadequacies of childhood. His father, despite being a huge music-lover, never approved of McMullan’s decision to enter the arts and would disregard his sensitive nature with shouts of “Oh, for God’s sakes, be a man!” His mother, whom he describes in the book as “a depressive on the deepest level of her personality [yet]…always ready for a drink and a party,” struggled in her own ways. Leaving China

After the family learns of the death of McMullan’s father and while they were living in Shanghai, his mother was eventually advised that she was “too soft” on the boy and that he was “heading straight into the dark valley of effeminacy.” She signed the young McMullan up for boxing lessons. Sensing his misery, his teacher asked the boy what he liked to do instead. “I like to draw, Mr. Ryan,” he responded. “Well then,” he said, “you’ll be an artist and not a boxer.” It wasn’t until then, McMullan writes, that the floodgates were opened, “and I cried quietly as we walked to the door.” With this, his life was forever changed.

“The book is really about how art gave me strength I didn't have in other parts of my personality,” McMullan tells me, “and a way to see the world with some measure of calm and satisfaction. It certainly healed me from the pain of my parents' disappointment in me. I can see in retrospect that my mother was dealing with very difficult issues: the separation from my father, anxiety about money, and coping with a child she feared for. She was intermittently very loving with me and doing the best she could. My father was immersed in the rigors and brutality of his work in the war and simply not with me enough to see me with more understanding.”

What’s next for McMullan after such a cathartic creation? Zambonis, of course. He and his wife Kate are hard at work on a picture book about that very subject (along the lines of the award-winning I Stink! and its follow-up, I’m Dirty!). He’s also considering another project he himself would write.

For now, Leaving China, an elegant story of nuance, waits to be discovered by readers.

Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.