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Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach
by Karen Hesse, illustrated by Wendy Watson
The night me and Maybelle and Eddie harvested potatoes, Ma was workin' the night shift. Our ma, she's mighty fine, but lately it seems like she got nothin' left over, not even for us kids.
My big sister, Maybelle, she's always plannin' and schemin'. She'd been watchin' Mr. Kenney's harvester for days.
"Jack," she said. "I'm thinkin' we need a tater harvest of our own, and tonight looks just about right for it."
"Ma's been workin' so hard," Maybelle said. "Let's bring her in some extra. 'Less we gather them spuds off Kenney's field, they'll go to rot, sure thing, and that's just plain wasteful. Ain't that right, Eddie?"
Little old Eddie, he just dotes on Maybelle, I don't know why. That boy hooked his big eyes on Maybelle's face and said, "M-m-m."
--Spuds by Karen Hesse, illustrated by Wendy Watson, p. 2-4.
Spuds is a moving story, where ultimately kindness wins out, creating good feeling in the story and in the reader.
Three hungry children whose mother works too hard go out one night when their mother works the night shift, to steal left-over potatoes from a neighbor farmer's yard after he harvested them. The children work hard, but when they get the sacks home they discover that most of what they thought were potatoes were stones. Still, they have some potatoes. But when their mother finds out, she makes them go apologize and take them back to the farmer. The farmer responds with kindness, letting the children know that they helped him out by removing the stones, and invites them to keep the potatoes they did find, and to come back next year and do the same thing. This act of kindness allows the children and their mother to have a celebratory evening together, full of gladness and warm potatoes.
Hesse writes with a beautiful, vibrant voice that often says so much in a powerful way: "Our ma, she's mighty fine, but lately it seems like she got nothin' left over, not even for us kids." Hesse makes the story rich and layered, with great metaphors, strong dialect and atmosphere, and at times almost lyrical language. Details help us believe in the characters and their world. For me, sometimes it felt like there were some details that we didn't need to know or extra text, but overall the story flows well and is moving. The story is told in the first person, from the point of view of Jack, the middle child. It took me a few pages to figure out who the main character was, though.
Hesse brings reader empathy for the children from the very first page, where we learn that their mother works too hard and often doesn't have much energy left over to give emotionally to them. We also understand that they are hungry, and cold, and care about their mother, wanting to help her out. All those things help us like the children and want things to work out for them. We also see the mother act with good values, encouraging the children to be honest and face up to what they did.
The ending is heartwarming and actually brought tears to my eyes. An act of kindness helped make everything turn out all right. Because we come to care about the characters, and can identify with the basic needs for hunger and love, the ending is all the more poignant.
Watson's mixed-media illustrations (pencil, colored in, watercolor, and gouache) depict the characters and their world well. Watson uses a lot of browns and subdued tones of green, blue, and yellow. For me, the illustrations felt washed out and a bit dark, almost depressing. They fit with the feeling of poverty and a family going through tough times, though I wish that when things got better, the colors got brighter (though the borders do change from a dull green to a creamy yellow). Still, that's my personal take on it, and everyone experiences color in their own way. Watson visually shows us the family's tough times, through the patched clothing, the barren house, and the few objects they do have.
Characters and objects are outlined in pencil, and that plus the perspective sometimes make the illustrations feel almost flat on the page. Characters and setting have the feeling of being in the past, especially the clothing, vehicles, and some of the household objects such as the stove. Many of the scenes where the children are out in the field are illustrated so that the reader sees huge expanses of sky and field, and the children are small, which brings a lonely quality to those scenes. Jack, the main character, usually stands out from the others with his red shirt, which helps bring the focus to him (though he blends in in the field scenes).
Spuds affirms for readers that there is kindness and goodness in the world, and that a small act of kindness can bring good feeling to others. This is a book to be shared. Recommended.
-Added October 5, 2008
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