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Reviews of select books by Vera B. Williams

williams_amberwasbravestar2 Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart
by Vera B. Williams; illus. by the author
Primary, Intermediate    Greenwillow    72 pp.
9/01    0-06-029460-4    15.95    g
Library ed.    0-06-029461-2    15.89

For sisters Essie and Amber, a “Best Sandwich” means snuggling together with their teddy bear between them, breathing “each other’s breath / in and out and in and out / till they heard at last their mother’s key in the big front door.” Vera B. Williams has put together a different kind of “Best Sandwich” — a series of interconnected poems flanked by colored-pencil portraits in the beginning and the end — to tenderly convey the girls’ resilience and vulnerability in the face of parental absence. The story emerges bit by bit through sometimes heartbreaking vignettes. We learn in the poem “Essie Shook Amber to Make Her Memory Work” that Essie and Amber’s father is serving time for forgery (“Remember we were right in the kitchen / when the cops came, / Essie insisted”). Their mother must work long hours for minimal pay, leaving them with a complex daycare schedule or, all too often, with no daycare at all. But Williams deftly balances these disturbing images with scenes that show the sisters are still able to find refuge in simple childhood pleasures. In “Whoops,” the girls jump on their bed until the frame breaks, and even then they “can’t stop laughing / Look how far away the ceiling / We’re in a field / and that’s the sky.” Black-and-white pencil sketches interspersed with the poems enhance the emotion in them without causing a distraction, culminating in a joyous wordless three-page sequence when Amber and Essie’s father returns home. The decision to feature color only briefly at the book’s beginning and in “An Album” at the end turns out to be an inspired one. Before the main text starts, we see four portraits — a front and back view of each sister, standing expectantly, as if waiting to get to know us. By the end, we welcome the chance to savor a few snapshots of our new friends.

chair for my motherA Chair for My Mother
by Vera B. Williams; illus. by the author
Primary    Greenwillow   32 pp.
1982    0-688-00914-x    9.00    g
Library ed.    0-688-00915-8    8.59

Color-splashed watercolors recalling the patterns of Matisse and the primitive quality of Gauguin evoke the love and warmth among a child, her mother, and her grandmother. Sitting in their kitchen, with its mottled linoleum and old-fashioned white appliances, they count the tips the mother earned as a waitress at the Blue Tile Diner. The money — like all their spare change — is put into a large glass jar; when they “can’t get a single other coin into the jar,” they will take the money and buy “a wonderful, beautiful, fat, soft armchair” to replace the chairs and sofa the family lost in a fire. At last, the jar is full, and the three set out to shop for the chair, stopping only when they find one that lives up to their dreams — a gloriously overstuffed armchair covered in red upholstery splashed with large pink roses. The cheerful paintings take up the full left-hand pages and face, in most cases, a small chunk of text set against a modulated wash of a complementing color; a border containing a pertinent motif surrounds the two pages, further unifying the design. The result is a superbly conceived picture book expressing the joyful spirit of a loving family.

cherries-and-cherry-pits

star2 Cherries and Cherry Pits
by Vera B. Williams; illus. by the author
Primary    Greenwillow   40 pp.
1986    0-688-05145-6    11.55    g
Library ed.    0-688-05146-4    11.88

In A Chair for My Mother (Greenwillow) and the other two books about the child Rosa, Vera Williams abundantly demonstrated both her flair for exuberant color and design and her faith in the love and caring that unites human beings. Now in a wholly original picture book she plunges into memory and transmutes the recollected events and emotions of her childhood into vibrant experiences. With utter ingenuousness a young narrator talks about her friend, the girl Bidemmi, who “loves to draw” with many-colored magic markers, picturing the inventive tales she tells. Bidemmi’s first three accounts begin with someone leaving a subway train, carrying a small bag of cherries, and, as with most imaginative young raconteurs, the words come tumbling out. First, a big, strong black man arrives home and, gathering his children to him, lovingly feeds them his “really red cherries.” Then Bidemmi changes her characters: this time “a tiny, white woman,” wearing a “black hat with a pink flower” and “old, old shoes,” goes home to her single room and shares her cherries — “light red and sour” — with her pet parrot. Next, a tall, lithe black boy, who “looks a lot like my brother,” brings dark red cherries as a gift to his little sister. Finally, quietly exultant, Bidemmi herself becomes the central figure. Emerging from a subway staircase, she buys cherries from a vendor, plants the pits in her “junky, old yard,” nurtures a little sprout, and coaxes a young tree into bloom and leaf. At last, constantly depicting the miraculous process, Bidemmi finds glorious ripe cherries hanging from the branches, enough for all her neighbors and “even for their friends from Nairobi and Brooklyn, Toronto and St. Paul.” The four unconnected episodes are unified by the underlying motif and by the ingeniously designed illustrations, which feature both the youthful artist and her art: while sensitive watercolor paintings show Bidemmi engrossed in her work, her own pictures are unaffectedly naive, energetic magic-marker drawings. Profound as well as enchanting, the book implicitly deals with a philosophical concept, presenting in a young child’s terms an image of the ecstasy of creation — of the human mind totally engaged in creative imagination.

williams_moremoremorestar2“More More More,” Said the Baby: Three Love Stories
by Vera B. Williams; illus. by the author
Preschool    Greenwillow   32 pp.
10/90    0-688-09173-3    12.95
Library ed.    0-688-09174-1    12.88

A book for parents, grandparents, and other significant adults to enjoy with their littlest ones. This trio of gentle vignettes shows three toddlers gathered up and cuddled by grownups. Little Guy’s daddy throws him up high, swings him around, and then “gives that little guy’s belly a kiss right in the middle of the belly button.” Little Pumpkin’s grandma has to “run like anything just to catch that baby up” and then nibbles on the toes of her “best little grandbaby.” Both children respond with laughter and with a plea for “More. More. More.” Little Bird’s mother tenderly prepares her sleeping child for bed, kissing each of the baby’s eyes as a final good-night. “‘Mmm,’ breathes Little Bird. ‘Mmm. Mmmm. Mmmm.'” The variety of family members depicted, as well as the several ethnic groups identified — even within an individual family — presents an opportunity for much discussion with very young children about what constitutes a family. The pages reverberate with bright colors and vigorous forms. The text, which is painted onto the pages, with each letter bearing its own rainbow of hues, is visually integrated into the design of the book in uniquely successful fashion. The rhythmic language begs to be read aloud, and young listeners are sure to wriggle with delight at all the many ways their favorite grownups have of saying “I love you.”

williams_scooterstar2 Scooter
by Vera B. Williams; illus. by the author
Intermediate    Greenwillow/Morrow   150 pp.
10/93    0-688-09376-0    15.00
Library ed.    0-688-09377-9    14.93

When Elana Rose Rosen, her prized scooter with the silver and blue stripes on the wheels, and her mom move to the Melon Hill Houses, a complex of high-rise apartment buildings in New York City, Elana is overwhelmed by the thought of so many apartments with so many people she doesn’t know. Thanks to a rather dramatic accident on her scooter and her own irrepressible personality, Lanny soon has a wonderfully varied group of friends and is busily organizing the Melon Hill kids to compete in their Borough-Wide Field Day. Through Petey, a trusting, silent little boy who never speaks but follows Lanny around like a shadow, she meets Mrs. Grenier, Petey’s babysitter. In spite of Mrs. Grenier’s never-ending litany of complaints, which prompt Lanny to name her “Mrs. Grenier the Whiner,” Lanny “really loves her,” and she and Petey become a kind of extended family to her. Lanny is a delightful character who lives every moment and feels every emotion more intensely than most people. Whether she’s having a raging temper tantrum, showing loyalty and affection, or competing on her beloved scooter, Lanny remains completely genuine and natural while giving more than one hundred per cent to every experience. Williams’s graphics and drawings that somersault and zoom across and around the pages add to the exuberance of the story. Lanny and her scooter will win readers’ hearts as well as two blue ribbons.

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