For my first re-reading adventure, I pulled out an old copy of Blue Willow by Doris Gates. I confess as a child, I only read this book because the author had written a horse book that I loved, Little Vic. But I ended up liking Blue Willow, too. I had not read this book since elementary school, so I wondered as an adult if it would hold up. Is Blue Willow well-written enough to hold my attention today, and is it still relevant?
Author Doris Gates
Happily, the answer to both questions is yes! Gates does a wonderful job of crafting likable, believable characters, and her story flows easily. Blue Willow tells the story of ten-year old Janey Larkin, who moves around with her migrant-worker father and her step-mother. The book begins as the family reaches the San Joaquin valley in California for cotton-picking season. Janey treasures her blue willow pattern plate, the only item left connecting her to her mother. To Janey, it represents both the past and her hopes for a home in the future.
Blue Willow Plate
Having lost his ranch in the Dust Bowl, Janey's father travels to find work, taking his small family with him. The family moves in to a vacant shack, and Janey is befriended by Lupe Romero, a neighbor girl whose living situation is more stable than Janey's. The Romero family quickly embraces the Larkins, and Janey hopes against hope that this time, her family will not have to move on. Janey knows they can stay as long as the cotton is in the field, but what will happen when cotton picking season is over? Janey treasures books, longs to attend a "real" school rather than the camp school, and loves to see the red-winged blackbirds in the tall grasses. What's not to love?
The challenges of poverty and homelessness play out in this gentle story appropriate for young readers. Gates' novel is credited with being one of the first "realistic" books for children. It was published in 1940, and in 1941 was named a Newbery Honor book. In today's challenging economy with many families struggling with unemployment and losing their homes, Blue Willow is very applicable today, not just as an historical account. Themes of friendship and courage are also present in the book. Doris Gates was a librarian in Fresno, and was quite familiar with migrant families and the "camp schools" that educated them. Janey and Lupe are well-written characters. I really loved Lupe, and how hard she worked to be Janey's friend. There is a wonderful scene where Lupe thinks Janey doesn't have the money to ride the merry-go-round at the fair, and she is trying to find a way for Janey to ride, without hurting her friend's pride. Lupe's sensitivity to Janey's situation and feelings are a great example of how friendship can be. I also appreciated that Janey's relationship with her stepmother is a good one.
I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading Blue Willow, and was happy to learn the book is still in print and still available. Not bad for a book written over seventy years ago. I will keep this one on my shelf.
Check out another great read at Book Warp 2 - The Changeling by Zilpha Keatley Snyder.