Friday, July 9, 2010
Picture Books For Hard Times: The Wrap Up
Finally, Spuds, by Karen Hesse.
The set-up: A mother and her three children (Maybelle, Jack and Eddie- in that birth order) live a hard-scrabble life in a rural area.
From the title to the last word, this book rings with authenticity. Hesse nails all the details- the speech, the setting, the emotions - beginning with sibling relations, and desire. One night when Ma is working Maybelle persuades her gullible younger brothers to do their own "tater harvest" on a neighbor's farm. As they pick the potatoes in the darkness, she "gooses" the boys on with mouthwatering descriptions: "Ma's gonna boil 'em and bake 'em. She's gonna slice 'em thin as fingernails and fry 'em up crusty brown with lots of salt sparklin'."
The key scenes are emotionally powerful. After the stealthy tater snatching, the children come home and spill their bags on the kitchen floor. "Them hard spuds rolled out, fillin' the room with the smell of dirt. I bent down to sort the muddy clumps. Then I knelt. Then I sat down in the middle of the cracked linoleum. And that's when I felt a hole open up inside my heart." The children have harvested mostly stones.
Spuds is about honesty, and forgiveness- even in the hardest times. Ma makes the kids return their catch, but she forgives them. (After all, Maybelle says she was only trying help her put food on the table.) The farmer tactfully thanks the children for clearing his field. With the potatoes he lets them keep, Ma makes a fry up that tastes like "all kinds of goodness." That goodness is sustenance, mother love, and compassion.
In the picture books discussed this week, the authors selectively use details to convey financial hardship. The characters need a way out, an escape or a different focus. Beauty, imagination, and self-expression offer release. Working towards a goal, being generous towards the even less fortunate- or experiencing someone else's generosity- also helps them transcend their condition. The characters may not solely solve their own problems (at least one loving adult is involved), but they're active and dynamic.
Fly Away Home and Tar Beach are two other moving, inspirational books about characters in hard times. If you discover others, please let me know, and if you're writing such a story...bravo!