As their food supply dwindles and Mom pours the last cup of milk to make her special “fancy milk” drink, Molly learns they’ll be visiting a food pantry the next day. “What’s a food pantry?” Molly asks. “It’s a place for people who need food,” Mom answers. “Everybody needs help sometimes.”
In gentle ways, O’Neill and Magro illustrate the characters’ hesitance and anxieties while they wait in line for the pantry to open. Molly sees her classmate, Caitlin, standing in line with her grandmother. To Molly’s surprise, Caitlin expresses feelings of shame for being there. Walking back to her mom, Molly feels confused. Is “there something wrong with needing help?” Once inside, even Mom “look[s] like she want[s] to be invisible.” But Molly reminds her, “Everybody needs help sometimes.” Later, Molly points out to Caitlin ways they themselves helped “cheer up” the grown-ups in the pantry.
Open, honest conversations between Caitlin’s grandmother and Mom about finding and keeping employment allow for a safe space to share. Muted illustrations using straight, geometric lines provide a sense of structure, order, and calm. With minimal background in the settings, Magro allows readers to focus on each individual character, driving home the point: everyone is important, everyone needs help, and most of all, we need each other. A note in the back matter for adults and caregivers about food insecurity by Kate Maehr, Executive Director and CEO of the Greater Chicago Food Depository, provides additional details on child hunger and resources to help.
Whether in the classroom or family room, readers young and old can benefit from this positive, heartfelt message of hope.
HOME IN THE WOODS
Written and illustrated by Eliza Wheeler
(Nancy Paulsen Books; $17.99, Ages 5-8)
★Starred Reviews – Booklist, Horn Book, Kirkus
“This book is inspired not only by the stories from [my grandmother],” says Wheeler, “but by the entire generation that experienced the Great Depression. They will soon be gone, and if we haven’t yet collected their stories, the time is now.”
Home in the Woods, the latest picture book by Eliza Wheeler is a treat for the eyes and soul. The embossed title on the book jacket is gorgeous as is the winter scape underneath. The water color and ink artwork is simply stunning.
Travel back in time as this compelling story, based on Wheeler’s grandmother’s life in the Wisconsin woods during the Great Depression, pulls readers right into each meticulously and movingly illustrated page.
Told from the perspective of Wheeler’s grandmother, Marvel, Home in the Woods introduces readers to the six-year-old and her seven siblings along with Mum, a newly widowed and stoic 34-year-old. This 40-page book unfolds over four seasons beginning in Summer when the time is ideal to move into an abandoned tar-paper shack they find in the woods. “You never know what treasures we’ll find,” says Mum. While Marvel doesn’t believe the rundown hut can ever be a treasure let alone a home, she carries on nonetheless relying on the closeness of her family and her mother’s optimism. That energy is conveyed in scenes like the one where seven of the siblings (the youngest, at 3- months-old, is at home with Mum) happily collect berries. Wheeler subtly shows how nature plays an important role in both the family’s struggle and survival.
The blue tones of Summer shift when Autumn arrives and “rust and ruby leaves” provide a beautiful backdrop for this season’s art. Everyone in the family pitches in whether it’s splitting wood to heat the shack or pulling weeds and picking “veggies.” As baby Eva munches a carrot, Mum cooks preserves and the children prepare for winter by stocking up the cellar with whatever they were able to harvest.
On a visit to Bennett’s General Store, the siblings look longingly at the inviting shop window, but they have learned how to do without. They can only afford to “buy some basics.” Cleverly, the kids have invented a game they’ve dubbed General Store that keeps them entertained for hours. Beside the hut, Marvel displays “mud sweets,” little Lowell is the jeweler, older sister Bea sells fine hats (note the creativity of the hats Mum is admiring), and the others all find fulfilling counters to man.
When Winter’s bitter winds blow, the family huddles by the pot-belly stove as the two oldest boys “trek out to hunt for food.” Blue tones return, but the flames of the fire, the glowing lantern, the gold in the children’s crowns, and in the patchwork pieces as Mum teaches Bea to quilt all depict a warmth that is the fabric of this loving family. Marvel shares how her brother Rich teaches her to read in another touching illustration that is rich with contentment.
The illustration above clues readers into Mum’s silent fears for her family while the words, “But Mum stays awake into the night …” tell us what we’ve guessed all along. Living in the woods, barely eking out a living, and supporting her family of nine has taken its toll on this strong woman. Mum prays for her children to get safely through winter and the Depression.
The cycle of seasons culminates in Spring. “The cottonwoods are all in bloom” and a spirit of rebirth and renewal fills everyone’s hearts just as the family’s pail is filled with fresh milk at Erickson’s Farm. The children rejoice in the thrilling sound of birdsong and the blossoming of flowers. Enveloped by hope, the family has gotten through the harsh Wisconsin winter and emerged to find that the power of togetherness, teamwork and love has brought to them the promise of better days ahead and the true meaning of home.
Angelenos will home in onThe Echo Park Castawaysfor its title—Echo Park—because we know that place! This neighborhood is where the story’s characters converge in their latest foster-care home. Quentin, a boy on the autistic spectrum, is the newest addition to Mrs. K’s house. Though almost nonverbal, he clearly communicates his desire to go home to his mom. Nevaeh, Vic, and little Mara may be veterans of the system but they understand Quentin’s need.
The reader is shown how each character struggles to get by since the story is told in three viewpoints. “Loud Boy” Vic lives in a fantasy world where he’s a superspy spinning tales about his father’s absence—anything is better than accepting the fact he was deported to El Salvador. “Quiet Girl” Mara barely speaks English but can get through to Quentin. As Vic plots how to reunite Quentin with his mom, “Tall Girl” Neveah has to put aside her already too-full workload of chores and college prep to keep the younger kids out of trouble; she’s their caretaker, like it or not.
Circumstances beyond their control bring these kids from different walks of life together. Though obstacles face them in everyday life, they forge connections and make a family for themselves. This fast-moving story illuminates how children with limited options adapt to a flawed system.
The Echo Park Castaways is a deeply personal book for the author, M.G. Hennessey, who volunteers as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) in the L.A. foster care system. In that position and as a youth mentor for the Lifeworks program, Hennessey has witnessed the system responsible for society’s most vulnerable children. The book presents characters based on case stories that illustrate the very real challenges foster children face every day. There are 30,000 kids in L.A.’s child welfare system—the largest in the nation.