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Mr. Williams
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Mr. Williams

3.0 1
by Karen Barbour

The powerful and personal story of one American childhood

When Mr. Williams was a boy growing up in Arcadia, Louisiana, Calvin Coolidge was president, Martin Luther King Jr. had just been born, and children worked hard in the fields for most of the year.

Many years later, Karen Barbour grew up hearing Mr. Williams tell stories about his childhood. In


The powerful and personal story of one American childhood

When Mr. Williams was a boy growing up in Arcadia, Louisiana, Calvin Coolidge was president, Martin Luther King Jr. had just been born, and children worked hard in the fields for most of the year.

Many years later, Karen Barbour grew up hearing Mr. Williams tell stories about his childhood. In this beautiful book, she not only shares the memories he passed on to her but also creates stunning paintings to illustrate them.

The story of Mr. J. W. Williams, lovingly told by his friend, evokes a specific time and place in American history in a way that is immediate, intimate, and relevant.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
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.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Children's Literature
Barbour speaks to us in the voice of J.W. Williams, whom she knew as a child. His life is a part of African-American history in the South. Born in 1929, in Louisiana where the planting seasons were the focus of life, he lived on a farm near a swamp, with six brothers, assorted animals and five sisters with no electricity or running water. Aside from the hard work, there was time for swimming and fishing, and of course, for church. The text is filled with the memories, the sounds, the tastes, of his youth. He only incidentally notes his fear of "some white people." One young man would come after him in his car and run him off the road. The family Christmas was the high point of the year. "That's how it was then, and that was a long time ago." Barbour's brushed black ink lines and almost crudely applied gouache with collage create rural pre-war Louisiana in a faux folk art style, employing a sophisticated sequence of very stylized figures in decorative settings. Ripe cotton fills a field with white polka-dots. Fruit trees are colored circles with spots of red. A yellow sun fills almost half a page with its brilliance and fringed halo. This is a clean, almost Biblical world full of nature's blessings and family togetherness. There is a brief note about Williams, who died in 2000, and his photograph. 2005, Henry Holt and Company, Ages 6 to 9.
—Ken Marantz and Sylvia Marantz
Children's Literature - Robin Overby Cox
Love for the ways of the farm, but fear of the ways of the white world are presented in this first-person narrative account of Mr. Williams' childhood. If the reader is presented with information in advance about the particular mechanics of an oral history, a student or listener will be more likely to find this a satisfying and informative tale. The author was able to hear Mr. Williams give his account first hand, and shares his personality and upbringing. His life was not easy, yet Mr. Williams shares his life in such a way that the reader knows such a life was beautiful in spite of its imperfections. Mr. Williams is hard-working, peaceful, and both painfully and painstakingly aware of his surroundings. While he explores the eggs of the alligators buried in the sand, he must behave as if he has his head in the sand when white men try to run him off the road. Like Faith Ringgold, the author uses rich artwork to enhance this oral history. Sharing folkways and mores, the author gives the reader the opportunity to experience farm life, as well as prejudice in early 20th century Louisiana. Ink-and-gouache illustrations as well as collages bring out the beauty and hardship of Mr. Williams' rural boyhood.
School Library Journal
K-Gr 3-Recounting stories told by J. W. Williams, a friend of her mother's, Barbour captures the essence of a black Louisiana farmer's life in the early 20th century. In this first-person narrative, Mr. Williams describes his childhood, depicting an austere daily routine of hard work punctuated by Sundays and seasonal changes and embellished by his joy in the natural world. "On summer evenings, I'd lie on the porch with a pillow-[and] listen to the owls hollering-and foxes barking their funny little dog barks." Racism was a fact of life, but the text does not dwell on it. Williams does recall the young white men who regularly tried to run him over as he walked to school: "I was scared of some white people. They'd scare you up pretty good. If you ever saw white people you'd go way around them." The words are succinct but evocative of a larger picture, which Barbour leaves for readers to paint for themselves. The ink-and-gouache illustrations, punctuated with well-placed bits of fabric collage, are perfect. Polka-dotted cotton fields, unpainted raw floorboards, skin tones ranging from tan to gray to blue, and a radiant sun add texture and temperature to the pictures. The beauty of this book comes from the synergy of the spare narrative and rich artwork. The contrast makes each one more compelling; together they are powerful. This exquisite piece of oral history will surely elicit conversations about race, but it also provides a terrific opportunity to discuss the beauty of a simple life lived well.-Mary Hazelton, Elementary Schools in Warren & Waldoboro, ME Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Mr. J.W. Williams grew up in rural Louisiana during the Depression. He tells of his large family surviving by hard work, faith and love. Each family member contributed, including the horses and mules. But there is also storytelling of traditional folktales and mouthwatering home cooking using the foods produced on the farm. There is a sense of the rhythm of the seasons filled with sights, sounds, smell and touch. As an African-American of his time, he could not escape the fear that accompanied the ugliness of bigotry, but he does not allow it to sour the loving remembrances. In an author's note, Balfour explains that she has attempted to faithfully adhere to the stories she heard directly from Mr. Williams. The wonderful folk art-style gouache-and-ink illustrations are filled with lovely color and perfectly match the simplicity of the text. What a delightful way to show young readers "how it was back then." (Picture book/nonfiction. 6-10)

Product Details

Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
8.34(w) x 10.22(h) x 0.36(d)
790L (what's this?)
Age Range:
6 - 10 Years

Meet the Author

Karen Barbour is an award-winning illustrator of many books for children, including I Have an Olive Tree by Eve Bunting. She lives in Point Reyes Station, California.

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Mr. Williams 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was a fine written story however, for me, I would prefer to read about someone who is in our history and accomplished something (Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, etc) Mr. Williams was a family friend of the author and she wanted to write about his life back in 1929 and what life was like for him as an a man of color. It's another informative story for students.