I read just now that Vera Williams has died and am suffering that intensely personal sense of loss that book lovers can feel for someone who has moved and inspired them so much, in private moments, curled up, a world unfolded on your lap, smiling through that wonderful silent conversation between the book and the turning pages, and the images, and the reader. You can always go back and have those particular conversations again – that’s the beauty of this sort of intimacy! – but the creative force that produced those books is present now only in what’s been left behind.
I never knew Vera Williams personally; my connection to her was always that of fan-to-author. She was about the same age as my mother, though; when I heard her speak she reminded me of some ardent, passionate politically leftist artists in my parents’ circle. And her books held a combination of sincerity, beauty and warmth that spoke to me in the same way that my favorite aunts and “aunts” (those friends of family who were too close not to be thought of as relatives) might, calling you over to their side on a couch, telling you a good story about the old neighborhood.
By the time I was getting ready to enter the industry (1984), Williams had already launched a vibrant career. But it was her books about Rosa that seemed to embody all the things I loved about children’s books, all the things I felt were important, all the good I felt could be done. Her characters lived in a multi-racial world, presented unselfconsciously, an obvious and true – if perhaps mildly idealized, but that was/is the case in lots of picture books – reflection of a world I recognized. The stories themselves were filled with genuine emotion – a child striving to buy a comfortable chair to replace one lost in a fire, a group of kids finding a way to entertain a sick grandmother. And her art was carefully nuanced and impactful. Its naïve style suggested spontaneity, while the consistent quality of all her books gave strong evidence of rigorous planning and design.
Sometime in 1985 or 86, in a besotted conflation of my personal response and my professional admiration for Vera Williams I made an embarrassing faux pas unique (I hope) in my career. A struggling editorial assistant, and a hopeful writer, I sent Vera a copy of a manuscript I’d written. (How did I get her address, I now wonder. There was no Google. No websites. It must have taken detective work.) It was a story about a woman who embraces the changing ethnicities and racial characteristics of her neighborhood over several decades, and stands up for it (literally) by chaining herself to an old tree that is threatened by an uncaring government.
I am full of sympathy for the kid who did that. The themes WERE Williams-esque maybe. She would have been an amazing artist for the book. Greenwillow would have been a dream publisher. But oy, the inappropriateness of sending it to the artist directly!! Totally embarrassing.
Fortunately Williams responded to my action with kindness and generosity. In a letter I opened with trembling hands, she said she liked my story. She encouraged me to continue writing! But, she said, treating this chutzpah-filled young writer with far more seriousness than I deserved, she had too many books of her own that she wanted to do.
Thank goodness, really. The world needed her to spend time on all those wonderful contributions she made in those thirty years.
Thank you again, Vera Williams. And thank you Susan Hirschman, Ava Weiss, and Virginia Duncan. Who knows how many lives have been touched, how many hearts soothed, how many smiles of recognition have broken out in the course of reading the wonderful books of Vera Williams. Millions I’m sure. With many more to come.