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AMBER WAS BRAVE, ESSIE WAS SMART
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AUTHOR STUDY -- Beverly Cleary
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AMBER WAS BRAVE, ESSIE WAS SMART: The Story of Amber and Essie told here in POEMS and PICTURES by Vera B. Williams is the story of two young girls who live in a city apartment. Through twenty-eight free-verse poems, the relationship between these two girls is eloquently portrayed. Their mother works; their father has been sent to prison for forging his boss’s name to a check. Essie is the older sister who “. . . could read hard library books / . . . could thread a needle / cook toasted cheese sandwiches / make cocoa / put the lipstick on just right / when they played dress-up. . . .” “Amber could write her name in script / . . . could tie her own shoes / . . . wasn’t afraid of the rat / in the wall under the sink . . .” Bowker’s Books in Print describes it as “A funny book that makes you cry. A sad book that makes you laugh.”

 

The book begins with full-color portraits done in colored pencils of front and back views of both Amber and Essie. The poems begin by describing Amber and Essie, not just their appearance, but their personalities as well. The story progresses telling about their weekly schedule, Amber’s favorite teddy bear, how they feel about their daddy being gone, jumping on the bed, the little girl who moved in upstairs, and, finally, their daddy coming home. Interspersed throughout the book are pencil drawings illustrating certain poems. At the end of the book is an album of full-color drawings of scenes depicted in the poems.

 

The poetry is in free verse, not rhyming, and many times not even punctuated. Williams uses all capital letters to show when the speaker is shouting, and italics to emphasize words. Sometimes she uses many horizontal spaces instead of commas; and in some poems the words are placed on the page in such a way as to make the words have more meaning. For example, in “No I won’t/Yes I Will,” Essie’s dialog is on the left; Amber’s is on the right. Since there is no “Amber/Essie said . . .” written, this is the only way you can tell which one is speaking. Williams explains this in a short preface, stating, “In all my other books I have used capitals to begin sentences; periods, questions marks, exclamation marks to end them; and commas, colons, semicolons, and quotation marks where expected. Here I have used those marks more freely (and less often), as suits my poetry and this story.”

 

Williams’ choice of words helps to paint a mental picture of the story. For example, in “Full Cart,” she writes “Trailing through the aisles / Amber kept pulling on Essie / to look in the cart . . .” Instead of “walking” or “following their mother,” the use of the word “trailing” depicts a feeling.

 

The poem that best describes the relationship between the two sisters is “Best Sandwich.”

 

            “Best Sandwich” they called it

            with Amber on one side

            and Essie on the other

            with one fat pillow close by Essie’s cheek

            and one fat pillow be Amber’s

            while Wilson The Bear

            lay right in the middle

            up against them both

 

            “Best Sandwich” they called it

            and it filled them up

            when peanut butter wouldn’t

            and jelly couldn’t

            (only crackers were on the shelf anyway)

            when their Mama was at her job

            and their Daddy was far away

            and the house felt dark

 

            when they did “Best Sandwich”

            it turned the room friendly from strange

            and they could breathe each other’s breath

            in and out and in and out

            till they heard at last

            their mother’s key in the big front door

 

Again, there’s no rhyme, but the first line of the first and second stanzas are identical which gives it a sort of rhythm. This poem also shows how the girls depend on each other to be there while they wait interminably for their mother to come home.

 

AMBER WAS BRAVE, ESSIE WAS SMART has been nominated for and has won many awards, the most recent being a 2004-2005 Texas Bluebonnet Award nominee.

This book is sad, but incredibly sweet and shows a loving a relationship between two sisters who are helping each other through a difficult time in their lives. Children will be drawn into the story, laugh at the girls antics, and cry at their plight. Once they read this author, I think they’ll want to read more of her work.

 

 

Williams, Vera. 2001. AMBER WAS BRAVE, ESSIE WAS SMART, TOLD HERE IN POEMS AND PICTURES. New York. HarperCollins Children’s Books Group.  ISBN: 0060294612.

 

Bowker’s Books In Print [database online]. Available from http://ezproxy.twu.edu:2123/merge_shared/Details/details.asp. Accessed 01 March 05.