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Amy Schwartz

When I learned of author-illustrator Amy Schwartz’s recent death, I felt sadness for her family’s loss and regret that the world of children’s books had lost her, as well. Schwartz wrote and/or illustrated more than sixty books, and readers will all have their personal favorites. In my family, there were two (both written by Amy Hest) that resonated deeply: The Purple Coat (1986) and Fancy Aunt Jess (1990). Schwartz’s illustrations perfectly translate the warmth and light of Hest’s stories, making them endure. The books reflect on the experience of growing up in a particular time and place, but they also show girl characters finding support for making their own choices — a timeless endeavor. Much of Schwartz’s art evokes a love for mid-twentieth-century New York City, and her gifts as an artist ensure that the books are accessible to twenty-first-century readers and those who might not have ridden on the subway, looked out at the cityscape from the window of an apartment, or used a rotary phone. 

In The Purple Coat, Gabby and her mother take the train into the city to visit Grampa in his tailor shop, where every year her grandfather sews Gabby a new winter coat. This year Gabby wants a purple coat, but her mother and grandfather don’t understand: she always gets a navy-blue coat. Her grandfather’s workshop is loaded with meaningful items: spools of thread stuck to a board, boxes of accessories, and bolts of cloth. Grampa is a slight bald man with reading glasses and a bright green sweater; even his most mundane tasks are infused with special meaning in the illustrations. In one scene, Gabby and Grampa sit side-by-side on his desk, eating sandwiches from the deli. Schwartz matches the features on their faces so closely that their age difference seems trivial compared to the bond between them. However, Schwartz is clearly aware of a child’s place in the world. A small detail of Gabby pulling up her knee sock while crammed into an elevator with oversized adults is a typical Schwartz touch, emphasizing the difference between children and grownups.

The title character in Fancy Aunt Jess is not Becky’s aunt but a cousin who has earned the honorific title because of her importance in Becky’s life. Becky travels to Brooklyn from the suburbs to visit Jess’s book-filled apartment with its view of the urban skyline. Jess is independent and determined not to settle for just any guy who wants to marry her. In Jess’s apartment, as she and Becky’s mother talk about men, Becky tries on Jess’s high heeled shoes and caresses the sleeve of her elegant coat. The coat, her mother’s sweater, and the dinette set are all the same tangerine color, drawing a connection between them without words. Becky is clearly trying out different possibilities for womanhood. What exactly does it mean to be feminine?

While the characters in The Purple Coat are coded as Jewish (by their speech, food, and geographic location), this part of their identity is relatively incidental. Fancy Aunt Jess ends with a marriage ceremony under a chuppah (a traditional Jewish marriage canopy), and my daughters were always excited by the scene, which both identified the characters explicitly as Jewish and also promised that Jess could, indeed, have it all. Earlier in the book, Becky had remarked that her aunt always wore “a hat with a wide brim...like a man’s hat but Aunt Jess looks nothing like a man!” The long hair flowing under that sturdy hat is now under a bridal veil, with no contradiction implied.

Growing up is a challenge, and children need help from parents, grandparents, and other adults. Schwartz’s pictures show children in the act of reflection. Navy or purple, mother or aunt, town or city — all offer choices. Her legacy of empathy for young readers and her artistic sophistication will not be forgotten.

Emily Schneider

Emily Schneider is a writer and educator living in New York City. She reviews books and contributes essays for the Jewish Book Council and others, and blogs about children's literature at imaginaryelevators.blog.

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