Saturday, April 8, 2017

Book Review: Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart by Vera B. Williams; You Have to Write by Janet S. Wong

If you were a child who loved to read growing up, a lot of children's picture books would be favorites. The Cat in the Hat and The Giving Tree and The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Stuff like that.

And then... A Chair For My Mother (1982) by Vera B. Williams.


This was one of the best things to come out of 1982, along with Ms. Pac-Man, E.T., and Family Ties. Years later I got the sequels to A Chair For My Mother from the library: Music For Everyone (1995) and A Chair For Always (2003), but neither were as good as the original. The original is a children's classic and maybe what ruined it was the fact that there WERE sequels.


But then yesterday at the library I found Williams's Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart, which tells the story - through poetry - of two sisters who are both alike and different, and whose father is in jail. In the story, we are first introduced to younger sister Amber and older sister Essie (who look nothing alike) through portraits of them Williams has drawn. The poems chronicle them missing their father, watching as a new girl (whose mother is dead) moves in, sleeping over with the new girl, and finally their father coming home. A "photo album" of illustrations follows all the poems.


I like this book because of the way it makes people look just like all other people, even if they have an incarcerated relative. Amber and Essie are perfectly normal kids, and so is their neighbor above, even if, in one way or another, they've lost a parent.


Also, one poem, "Daddy Song", spoken from Amber's voice, uses the word "bigly". "Bigly", as we all know, is a word Donald Trump seemingly used at the second presidential debate. Trump persists that he said "big league", but since "bigly" is a cromulent Scrabble word, it's okay if he did.


I got another book at the library yesterday: You Have to Write by Janet S. Wong. In it, Wong speaks to children who have been given a writing assignment. The author gives them tips on how to write, encouraging them to "make their words dance", to recall their own experiences, and not to expect perfection on the first try. Teresa Flavin's illustrations are also excellent. They show four diverse children, Alex, Andrew, Anna, and Allison (these are not their names in the story, these are names I have given them retroactively) working on the writing assignment. The illustrations seem to show the kids first working on their assignment solo, then doing it together. The book ends, "Try. Because you have to write, and you want it to be good."


I have student film ideas for both books. The former (Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart) could simply be an animated version of the pictures in the book, with a narrated voiceover reciting the poems. You Have to Write could be adapted by showing what goes on in the book, with Alex, Andrew, Anna, and Allison altering narration, and at the end, it can be revealed that this advice on writing... was their assignment.


Good stuff, huh?




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