Thursday, July 8, 2010

Picture Books For Hard Times: Day 4

Today, a look at Those Shoes by Maribeth Boelts, a hard times picture book with a spot-on child voice.

The set-up: Jeremy, who lives with his grandma on a limited income, dreams of getting a new pair of high top tennis shoes like all the boys are wearing.

On all fronts, Boelts has written a convincing socially realistic story. The dialogue is authentic ("There’s no room for ‘want’ around here- just ‘need’," says Grandma) and the details well-chosen (Jeremy is given outdated shoes from the guidance counselor that "have an animal on them from a cartoon I don't think any kid ever watched.") The boy's thoughts ring so true: "I'm not going to cry about any dumb shoes. But when I'm writing my spelling words later, every word looks like the word shoes and my grip is so tight on my pencil I think it might bust."

The character's behavior is plausible too- his envy, his guilt, his indecision and his final "sacrifice." Jeremy wants those shoes so bad he buys a pair that are too tight from a thrift shop. Then he notices a classmate with a taped up shoe, and feet smaller than his. At the park after school, he can help but notice that loose piece of tape smacking the concrete every time he jumps.

Jeremy solves his problem by solving someone else's. Unlike Lydia in The Gardener, he undergoes a crisis of conscience. Jeremy's generosity comes gradually, honestly, with difficulty...we experience his inner turmoil. I'm not going to do it, he thinks, over and over. The reader must infer what thought he's banishing from his mind. When Antonio comes for dinner, Jeremy can feel him "wishing those shoes were his." At night, he lies awake thinking about the boy, and tries the high tops on one last time. The next morning he races over to Antonio's doorstep to give him the shoes, before he can change his mind. It's so human, so childlike.

Those Shoes is realistic, but hopeful. All of Jeremy's classmates (except for Antonio) make fun of his unfashionable shoes. More important than this is the love from Grandma (who schleps him to the thrift shops and buys him the winter boots he needs), support from the guidance counselor, and friendship from Antonio. At the end of the book the two boys race off together in the newly fallen snow.

Tomorrow: one more book, and a wrap up.

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