Monday, July 5, 2010

Picture Books For Hard Times

Happy Birthday, America, and may the next year be a healthy and prosperous one.

Especially for the less fortunate among us. With those people in mind, the TC&TF devotes this week to picture books about characters with economic hardships.

Each day we’ll look at a hopeful yet authentic story. The subject matter presents many challenges: Which details can be used to evoke the setting? How can the characters transcend their circumstances? Is it possible for the characters to solve their own problems? How will emotion be conveyed?

One of my all-time favorite realistic picture books is Vera Williams’ A Chair For My Mother.

The set-up: a child, her mother and grandmother are saving spare change to buy a chair, because their possessions have been destroyed in a house fire:

“When we can’t get a single other coin into the jar, we are going to take out all the money and go buy a chair Yes, a chair. A wonderful, beautiful, fat soft arm chair. We will get one covered in velvet with roses all over it. We will get the best chair in the whole world.”

Ah, feel the desire in those few sentences. The repetition and lush description that creates emphasis. And note the choice of the first person/lyrical voice- for a story about healing, after a traumatic event.

An upbeat attitude prevails throughout the book. The chair becomes a symbol of hope, renewal and comfort. It provides the family with an achievable, concrete goal. The community is supportive- the boss at the diner where mother works gives the child coins for helping out. After the fire, friends and relatives donate food, furniture and other necessities.

The story is optimistic, while also vividly real. The author uses a few well chosen details to describe the aftermath of the fire, and scenes of everyday life. When mama comes home her feet hurt, and sometimes she’s so tired she falls asleep while the child counts the money into piles. Some days mama has only a little money and she looks worried. When grandma wants to sit back and hum and cut up potatoes, she has to get as comfortable as she can on a hard kitchen chair.

One of the more interesting things in ACFMM is the use of flashback, uncommon in picture books. It starts in the present tense as the family saves money for the chair, goes into the past for back story about the fire, returns to the present …when mom and child are still saving up coins. Why? Because this re-creates the feeling of desire in the main character. We can feel her wanting that chair, feeling the pain of the past, anticipating it more as the jar fills up and then….

the story moves forward in time. The family goes furniture shopping and finally find the chair “they were dreaming of.”

The story ends in the never-ending present, leaving the reader with a cozy, reassuring scene. “Now” grandma sits in the chair during the day, mama rests in it at night, and after supper the child joins her, sometimes falling asleep.

The watercolors are lovely. The plump cozy chair is covered with roses. No wonder this book is still in print!


  1. Another great picture book for hard times is The Gardner by Steward, set during the tail end of The Great Depression but a wonderful, uplifting story.

    Pragmatic Mom