Picture book history

Lots of authors write memoirs and autobiographies.  Some of these are even aimed at children–Beverly Cleary’s A Girl From Yamhill comes to mind.  But how many authors write a picture book memoir?

Earlier this summer, I ran across a mention of William Steig’s When Everybody Wore a Hat on Melissa Wiley’s blog.  Steig is best known for Sylvester and the Magic Pebble and Shrek.  Steig was born the same year as my own grandmother (1907), and this book is about his life when he was 8.  I love the jacket flap copy:

This is the story of

when I was a boy,

almost 100 years ago,

when fire engines were

pulled by horses,

boys did not play with girls,

kids went to libraries for books,

there was no TV,

you could see a movie for a nickel,

and everybody wore a hat.

When I read through it the first time, I liked it, but I didn’t love it.  And then I read it again and fell in love.  Steig is definitely comparing his life to the life of kids in 2003, when this book was published, but he doesn’t waste time on explaining every little tidbit that he tosses out.  He leaves plenty of room for questions and conversation about the past with little ones.  But, these open questions aren’t ones that parents would find it difficult to answer.  For example, he does a great page about the value of a nickel:

For a nickel you could get a lot: a hot dog sandwich from a stand.  A pound of fruit.  A movie.  And two movies if you sat in the same seat.  A movie was even called a “Nickelette.”

A nickel was money.

On your birthday you might get a nickel.

In those simple paragraphs are about 5 state standards for social studies and some main concepts we’re trying to teach in the General Store exhibit at the museum (and working on for the Bank exhibit).  Brilliant!

Of course, the illustrations are pretty fabulous too.  He includes a photo of himself in 1916 at the very beginning, and a photo of himself in 2003 at the very end.  His illustrations are in his usual style, but they’re not in the usual style of history-centered picture books.  So often, the illustrations in books like this are sweet, charming, nostaligic.  Though Steig definitely has some fun illustrations (I love this one with the crazy hat!)

But there are also illustrations of his parents arguing, his father threatening the radiator with a hammer, and his brother sick in bed.  There’s a reality and a harshness to these illustrations that I adore.  It makes his story seem more real.

I wish there were more picture books like this.  And perhaps there are–I will confess I’m not as familiar with history-centered picture books as I am with the chapter books.  But for now, I’m thrilled to add this one to my arsenal of kidlit history.

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