Vera B. Williams, . . HarperCollins/Greenwillow, $15.95 (72pp) ISBN 978-0-06-029460-1

Through a pastiche of poems and pictures, Williams (A Chair for My Mother) presents an affecting portrait of two young sisters in a struggling family. In the opening entry, readers learn why older Essie is smart (she "could read hard library books/ .../ thread a needle,/ cook toasted cheese sandwiches/ make cocoa") and why Amber is brave ("She could get the grocery man/ to trust them for a container of milk/ though their mother/ couldn't pay him till payday/ Amber wasn't afraid of the rat/ in the wall under the sink"). Gradually, readers learn about the challenges they face: their mother works long hours, their father is in jail for check forgery, the radiator grows cold in the evenings and there is little food. Yet there are lighthearted moments, as when the sisters make a "best sandwich" (with Amber on one side, Essie on the other, and Wilson The Bear in the middle), shriek with laughter as they jump on the bed and share a weekly ritual of playing beauty parlor with their mother. In perhaps the most poignant passage, Amber cuts off her braids "to send to Daddy/ so he'll be sure to remember me." The tale closes on an upbeat note when Daddy appears at the door. Williams opens with full-color portraits of the girls and closes with pastel drawings of the more dramatic moments; she punctuates the poems with black-and-white pencil drawings that convey the deep affection between these sympathetic sisters. Though the author taps into difficult themes, by relaying the events through the eyes of the two girls, she maintains a ray of hope throughout the volume. Ages 7-up. (Sept.)