cover image Karen Barbour

Karen Barbour

Karen Barbour, Karen Barbour. . Holt, $16.95 (32pp) ISBN 978-0-8050-6773-6

Barbour's (I Have an Olive Tree ) picture-book biography records the reminiscences ("as he told them to me," says an author's note) of Mr. Williams, born in 1929 on an African-American farmstead in Arcadia, La. From the unadorned language, peppered with particulars, a poetic simplicity emerges: "I grew up in a house made of pine with my mother and father and six brothers, five sisters, cows, pigs, chickens, guinea hens, turkeys, dogs, cats, and four mules and one horse." Readers gain a wealth of information about the era. The family received regular ice deliveries, for instance, and drank and bathed in well water because they had no electricity. Children will revel in details about farm life ("Everyone took care of his own mule. You fed it oats and hay and brushed it twice a day.... They'd roll in the dirt and you'd have to brush them all over again"), and Barbour does not shy away from the more unpleasant side of life in the South for Mr. Williams. Sometimes in the winter, as he walked to school, a young white driver would try to run him off the road. Barbour's exquisite paintings combine dark outlines, thick brushstrokes and startling colors (pink mules, a purple star-studded sky), occasionally integrating collage elements of intricate patterns. In her hands, the fields look magical at harvest time, erupting in blossoms and fruits. Barbour's meticulously rendered artwork and Mr. Williams' astute observations vividly dramatize a distinct moment in American history, well worth remembering. Ages 6-10. (Sept.)