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A Chair for My Mother: Vera B. Williams’ Boston Globe–Horn Book Award acceptance speech

by Vera B. Williams

chair for my motherFirst, I would simply like to share with you the fact that I am exceptionally happy to be here. It may be that I feel this way because I became a writer and an illustrator of children’s books only in recent years. I had intended to do so when I was in grade school and in high school. I even told a reporter for the old New York Herald Tribune — who was interviewing me in connection with the very special free art school I went to throughout my childhood — that I would do children’s books when I finished college. Then, when I was a student at Black Mountain College, I made several books by hand, even weaving the binding for one. I made a great big book as a birthday present for one of my children, who, after looking through it gravely, told me that it was very nice of me to have made it for her but that it was not the kind of present children like.

But I had not actually embarked on writing and illustrating as a profession. There were just too many other courses to be followed before I actually got around to it. When an old friend, Remy Charlip, generously gave me the chance to illustrate a book he and Lilian Moore had written — Hooray for Me! (Four Winds) — I was quite unaware that I was going to do a second book and a third and so forth. Being a Caldecott Honor winner this year and now the recipient of the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award still seems like a fairy tale to me. But there are also deeply moving aspects of this occasion I want to tell you of, and I expect I’ll have a somewhat harder time explaining just where these feelings are rooted than I have with the obvious joy and celebration of the experience.

It has something to do with being welcomed and honored by a community I respect, owe much to, and love. I shall go back to a day about fifty years ago. It was my turn to stand in front of the desk in the children’s room upstairs at the Tremont Branch Library in the Bronx to read the statement of responsibility at the top of the pages in the big book, which was an outsized ledger with ruled pages. After I read I was handed a pen dipped in ink, and I carefully wrote out my name in the penmanship I had learned in school. By this ceremony, which I experienced with religious solemnity, I was entered into the community of the library. At once I went and took out a book called The Poppy Seed Cakes (Doubleday). If one could locate the card of that particular copy, I imagine it would show that the book spent as much time in my house as in the houses of all the other borrowers put together. I loved the pictures. It occurs to me to note that the borders of A Chair for My Mother, though so different from the borders in The Poppy Seed Cakes, probably owe their dim beginnings to this book. Of course, there’s no way to be certain of such origins, but it is exciting to look back over the years and see the strands braiding up their many ways.

One strand I do feel certain about is my mother. I dedicated A Chair for My Mother to her, but that was just the final naming. I had, in a way, made the whole book for her, so I’m sure you will agree if I accept the award for my mother, too. Rebecca Poringer Baker was her name. She is no longer alive, having died at eighty-three after a very short illness; but when she was alive, she was very much so. It’s not that my book is about her in a biographical way. She was not tall and dark-haired but short and carrot-topped. There was never a fire in our house as there is in my book. Although I have worked in restaurants, my mother worked most of her life in shops, offices, and hospitals. And I doubt that she or any other real parent (certainly not I) was ever as patient as were the mother and the grandmother in the book. Truthfully, we never had a chair covered in velvet with roses all over it. In fact, the book is a re-formed story about a chair we actually did have in our lives. The story went like this.

Like many families during the Depression, we often moved. And we had very little furniture; my parents did not much value possessions. They looked critically at those suites of heavy dark furniture crammed into the small flats of our neighbors. They knew how painfully these suites were acquired by struggling young families, often to be repossessed for default of a month’s payment or set out on the street in an eviction for overdue rent. Such chairs and sofas made me sad. They came to symbolize the unjust and depressing facts of economic life. I saw the lack of such furniture in our own apartments (some twelve in all by the time I grew up) as a refreshing offer of freedom.

But one day my sister and I came home from school, and there was a new chair. It was green and upholstered. A real chair, not just a kitchen chair. My mother had recently found a job as children’s matron in the Fox Crotona Movie Theater and so made a down payment on the chair. After that, it seemed, when my sister or I would ask for a nickel or some pennies to get something or to go somewhere, my mother would say we had to save our money to make the monthly chair payments. I hated to hear how worried she sounded, so one day I yelled at her in my uncompromising way, “But why did you buy the chair now? Why didn’t you wait till we really had money to pay for it?” And she told me with great dignity, “I don’t intend to work all my life and have nowhere to sit down.”

Of course I felt that terrible mixture of guilt and righteousness that a person — child or adult — feels in such a situation. I knew as sure as I knew anything that my mother should have a chair. For it was very much she who had taken me the ten blocks to the library and downtown to museums. It was she who had found the Florence Cane Art School for my sister and me and had registered us at Bronx House, there to paint and act and sing and tell stories and dance till I had to be chased home each evening at five o’ clock. And she did all this in the midst of an already crowded and difficult life. My father often had no job, and she supported us; but she was also busy — as so many people were — helping to carry back the chairs (or the boxes used as chairs) for evicted families or trying to find a free dentist for some child, free piano lessons for another, or summer camps for the whole neighborhood.

By the time I got around to making my book, she richly deserved a super real chair — one with roses all over it. She would be pleased as anything that you have chosen to give it an award. As you can probably tell, I have a particular affection for this little book I’ve made. It’s embarrassing, but it’s true. I’ve liked my other books, too, but in this one I take particular pride. And it is because I became very involved in trying to express these childhood emotions, along with a certain wholeness I value greatly — a kind of amalgam that is so well named for me by the phrase “Bread and Roses.”

I take this good-smelling and good-tasting phrase from a song you here in New England might well be acquainted with. It was written for and sung by the women of the textile mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts, around 1928 in a strike both famous and infamous. The song is about how the women and the girls, who banded together with great constancy and devotion at that time, were doing it not only for the bread they so desperately needed for their families but also for the roses. They were telling that they needed, just as desperately, a chance to have some beauty and joy in their overworked lives. And, of course, this is what my parents’ lives were very much about, and it has been part of my life, too — which, admittedly, has been different from the hard life of my parents and of the generation of immigrants like themselves.

Now, I don’t mean to say I had anything like a developed intention to express all this when I set upon making this book. But I did have the feeling that some long-gestating baby was trying to be born. I sensed it as I worked at my drawing board day after day, as cups and saucers, salt shakers and roses, checkered borders and onions, jars of money, neighbors bearing gifts, fire engines, and sad faces confronting the ashes of their home all took form upon the pages — scenes I did not know I knew. I saw myself using more colors than I had ever used before, searching out the brightest I could buy and working out ways to make them appear even brighter. Then, when I finally put the pile of paintings into the hands of Ava Weiss and of Susan Hirschman, art director and editor in chief respectively, to be transformed into a real book with the great care and fidelity they bring to their books; when I stayed up all night painting roses to go on the back of the jacket and then yet another night when it turned out that those roses wouldn’t reproduce properly because, in my passion to make pink pinker and red redder, I had used some ink that was fluorescent — well, then I knew I had indeed been trying to make something really full, a testament to my feeling for the values and people of my childhood.

And some remarkable luck attended this book’s birth — namely, some very fine midwives. I’ve already told of Ava Weiss and Susan Hirschman. I want you to know also of a friend named Savannah, who worked with me to execute some of the many borders I designed for the book. And of my other good friends and my children, who kept reassuring me, when I stopped believing, that the “baby” would surely come to term. It was truly a lucky fact of my history to have started a new career at a time (and partly because of that time) when everywhere I went there seemed to be a community of women — old, young, and middle-aged — discovering their own strengths and eager for other women to succeed at all manner of ventures, being helpful and supportive when the work ran into trouble.

Yes, A Chair for My Mother is just a small thirty-two page book, but you can see it has been a very full experience for me; it has since become the first of a series of three. I am touched that you have capped this experience with the award. I thank you, and I intend to go home and make more books.

Given at the meeting of the New England Library Association in Hyannis, Massachusetts, on October 31, 1983. The Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for illustration was presented to Vera Williams for A Chair for My Mother (Greenwillow). From the February 1984 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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