Vera B. Williams, noted children’s book author and illustrator, artist, educator, and social activist, died on October 16, 2015. She was 88.
Vera Baker was born January 28, 1927 in Hollywood, Calif., a daughter of immigrant parents from Russia and Poland, and grew up in Bronx, New York, where her family moved when she was quite young. Encouraged by her mother and father, she showed an affinity for the arts from an early age, and when she was nine years old, one of her paintings, entitled “Yentas,” was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City as part of a program under the Works Progress Administration. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt attended that exhibition and spoke to Vera about her work. Their exchange was captured by the popular Movietone newsreels of the day.
Williams studied at the Music and Art High School in New York and later attended Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where she earned her B.F.A. in Graphic Art in 1949. She also studied at the Boston Museum School. At Black Mountain, Williams met fellow student Paul Williams, an architect, whom she married and with whom she had three children. While raising her family, Williams worked as an educator focused on progressive education in the arts at Gate Hill Cooperative Community in Stony Point, N.Y. and at Collaberg School, an alternative school for children, also in Stony Point, among other places. The Williamses divorced in 1970.
She entered the children’s book world as illustrator of Hooray for Me! (Parents Magazine Press, 1975), a title written by her friend Remy Charlip with Lillian Moore. In 1978, Williams published It’s a Gingerbread House: Bake It, Build It, Eat It! (Greenwillow), the first book she both wrote and illustrated. This title was also the beginning of her career-long relationship with Greenwillow Books. She went on to create several other picture books that have been lauded for their realistic and often celebratory portrayals of working class families, as well as for their bright palette and hand-lettered text. She also was intricately involved in the details of designing and manufacturing her titles, working very closely with her longtime publisher Susan Hirschman, who founded Greenwillow in 1974, and art director Ava Weiss; later, Williams continued in that fashion with current Greenwillow publisher Virginia Duncan and associate art director Sylvie LeFloch.
Some of Williams's most widely known works are her three books about Rosa, a Hispanic girl, and her family: A Chair for My Mother (Greenwillow, 1982), Something Special for Me (Greenwillow, 1983), and Music, Music for Everyone (Greenwillow, 1984). Rosa’s story continued years later in 2009’s A Chair for Always. A Chair for My Mother was awarded a 1983 Caldecott Honor and Williams received another Caldecott Honor in 1991 for her picture book “More, More, More,” Said the Baby: Three Love Stories (Greenwillow, 1990).
Hirschman said, “The love and life and joy that defined Vera as a person are reflected in her books – and vice versa. Whatever she did, wherever she was, Vera was totally there – in radiant full color. I never knew where her books and life diverged – they seemed one and the same to me, each filled with a commitment to humanity, particularly children, to all that is good and true, and to her family. She loved her work with all her heart – and that love is apparent on each glowing page of her books.”
Duncan noted, “For those of us at Greenwillow Books, past and present, who had the incredible opportunity to work with Vera and get to know Vera, it’s impossible to imagine a world without her. She had infectious energy, a one-of-a-kind smile and laugh, and a will of iron. And, of course, there are those books! A Chair for My Mother; Lucky Song; Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart; Cherries and Cherry Pits; Scooter; “More, More, More,” Said the Baby... all distinguished, all beautiful, all crafted with love and consummate care for children.”
According to Duncan, fans will see a posthumously published Williams picture book. “After we published A Chair for Always, Vera was also thinking about Home at Last – she had given me a manuscript – but decided to wait to tackle it,” Duncan said .”She decided a few months ago that she wanted to do the book but since she was not sure she had enough energy to do pictures she invited Chris Raschka to work with her on the illustrations and happily he said yes!” Home at Last is scheduled to be published in September 2016.
This article has been updated.