What Is Given from the Heart

In this posthumous offering from author Patricia C. McKissack, young James Otis and his mother are experiencing hard times: James Otis's father has died; they have lost their farm; their rundown new house floods; James Otis's dog disappears. The two things they have been able to hold onto are their faith and each other. In church one Sunday, they learn that another family has lost their home in a fire. The church is putting together a "love box" for the family, and James Otis’s mother encourages him to think of something to give to the little girl, Sarah, reminding him of their pastor's words: “What is given from the heart reaches the heart.”

James Otis frets over what he can give Sarah. None of his meager possessions feels special enough — so he decides to write a book for her instead. When he gives it to her the following Sunday, she is thrilled, and James Otis begins to understand what was meant about touching the hearts of others through giving. And when he and his mother get home from church, they find their generosity has come full circle. A love box of their own has been deposited on their front porch. The book concludes with a joyful exclamation: “And our hearts rejoiced! Our hearts rejoiced!"

At first glance, What Is Given from the Heart looks like another tale based on the old axiom “it is better to give than to receive.” But the story speaks to so much more — loss, grief, community, faith, material lack, and radical generosity. James and his mother are not giving out of material abundance but out of the abundance of their hearts. Though carrying the weight of loss and grief himself, James learns an important lesson about selflessness and community. Caring for one another is important in this community in which going without is a familiar experience, as well as knowing that one is merely a mishap or tragedy away from chaos.  

April Harrison’s vibrant collage work in the book's illustrations reflects this play of scarcity and abundance. The illustrations at the beginning of the book are paler, less textural, and have a somewhat translucent feel. Progressing through the book, the colors become deeper, more texture is employed, and the art becomes more opaque. The deepening of the illustrations feels grounding as James and his mother are transitioning into a new normal and are able to participate in community in small, but significant, ways. Sorrow begins to ease into moments of joy. Sarah with her eyes closed, hugging her new book tightly to her chest. James Otis's mother spinning around as snow begins to fall, her arms raised and her face turned to the sky.

Harrison’s illustrations masterfully use facial expression and body language to convey the myriad human emotions present in the story. Running the gamut between despair and joyful celebration, Harrison's art invites us to read the people and not just the words. Readers will find themselves frowning, smiling, and rejoicing with the characters, as we are at once engaged with the poignancy of the story and immersed in the gorgeous art. There is so much intimacy in the facial expressions of the characters, the way they stand, and the ways in which they tenderly hold and touch one another, or look lovingly at each other.

What Is Given from the Heart is a beautiful story about a community that builds its own safety net of love and care, despite the unexpected hardships of life.


Monique Harris

Monique Harris is a public educator, reading specialist and independent educational consultant. She holds a Master of Science degree in Education from Simmons University, and is enrolled in a PhD program at Florida State University.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

Sam Juliano

I am counting this sublime picture book as one of the most wrenchingly emotional of any book released in 2019. The opening revelation on Page 1 set the tone and Ms. McKissack has cxrafted a gentle and petic work, which in turn inspired April Harrison's to weave some stunning mix media, collage art, which is tonally faithful to the prose. The earthly pastels are wonderful as as the author states here is this fabulous review the illustrator "masterfully used facial expressions and body language" to wring every emotional possibility. I do think this is unquestionably one of the best books of this year.

Posted : Oct 01, 2019 09:20

Martha Parravano

I think the collage medium is particularly appropriate here -- just as James Otis and his mother do, the artist uses materials available to her and makes something beautiful out of them!

Posted : Sep 27, 2019 02:37


Community matters. Stay up to date on breaking news, trends, reviews, and more.

Get access to reviews of books, ebooks, and more


We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing