Vera B. Williams dies at 88; award-winning children's author and illustrator

Vera B. Williams' family saved pennies and nickels to get by during the Depression. So her mother's purchase of a "real chair" — neither stick-hard nor someone's castoff but brand new and cushiony — was an extravagance.

"I don't intend to work all my life and have nowhere to sit down," the woman said after her young daughter demanded to know why she bought something she had to struggle to pay off in monthly installments.

After chastising her mother, Williams recalled, "I felt that terrible mixture of guilt and righteousness that a person — child or adult — feels in such a situation."

Decades later, the painful memory became fodder for Williams' late-life career as a prize-winning children's author.

An educator and activist before she began writing stories that celebrated the resilience and creativity of women and girls from working-class backgrounds, Williams died Oct. 16 in Narrowsburg, N.Y.

A Los Angeles native, she was 88 and had ovarian cancer, her son, Merce Williams, said last week.

Williams wrote and/or illustrated 16 books, including "A Chair for My Mother" (1981) and "More, More, More Said the Baby" (1990), both of which earned prestigious Caldecott Honor citations.

In many of her books, characters grapple with poverty, absent fathers and other hardships. "Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart" (2001) was a sometimes wrenching, semi-autobiographical tale about two latchkey sisters whose mother worked long hours because their father was in jail.

Throughout her work, Williams depicted children of various hues whose parents were sometimes of a different ethnicity or race.

"Her books were full of exuberance and respect for children. She loved making books, and that love just comes out of the pages," said Williams' publisher, Virginia Duncan of Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins.

Born in Los Angeles on Jan. 28, 1927, Williams was one of two daughters of Eastern European Jews. Her father, Albert, often was out of work and disappeared for a long stretch, possibly because he was in jail. Her mother, Rebecca, sent Vera and her sister, Naomi, to a Jewish orphanage for about a year, until Albert came home.

When the family was together again, they moved to New York. Vera's mother held a variety of jobs to support them. When she bought the chair, she was working as a children's matron in a movie theater.

Both of Williams' parents were immersed in radical politics. Her father carried her on his shoulders to May Day parades and told her stories about the deadly Triangle Shirtwaist fire that sparked workplace reforms. Her mother agitated for day care, free dentists and summer camps for poor children.

She also ensured that her daughters were exposed to art and culture, finding free programs where they could paint, sculpt, dance and act.

"And that was a blessing, for I was a child with a lot to say," Williams wrote in an autobiographical essay for "Children's Books and Their Creators." "When people grew tired of my talking, I drew pictures. But then I had to tell about the pictures."

When she was 9, one of her paintings was displayed in the Works Progress Administration exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She went on to attend the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where the faculty included composer John Cage, artist Josef Albers and choreographer Merce Cunningham. She earned a bachelor's degree in graphic arts in 1949 and married a classmate, Paul Williams.

Their marriage ended in divorce in 1970. Williams is survived by their three children, Sarah, Jennifer and Merce, who was named after Cunningham; her sister, Naomi Rosenblum; and five grandchildren.

After college, Williams helped found an experimental school and artists' community in Stony Point, N.Y. She also illustrated covers for a left-wing magazine.

Following her divorce, she moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, in Canada, where she lived on a houseboat and began to work on children's books. The first book she illustrated was "Hooray for Me!" (1975), written by her friend Remy Charlip with Lilian Moore. She was both author and illustrator of her next book, "It's a Gingerbread House," published in 1978 when she was 51.

Three of her books feature a girl named Rosa and her tight-knit relationships with her mother and grandmother. The first in the series was "A Chair for My Mother," about saving spare change in a jar to buy "a wonderful, beautiful, fat, soft armchair" after a fire destroyed the home Rosa shared with her family. A Kirkus review said it was "rare to find so much vitality, spontaneity, and depth of feeling in such a simple, young book."

Williams' mother, whose sacrifices inspired the book, died before it was published.

"When I got the inspiration for the book," Williams said in an interview with Marguerite Feitlowitz, "I had the wonderful feeling that I now had the power, as a writer and an illustrator, to change the past into something happier than it really was, and to offer it as a gift to my mother's memory."

In "Something Special for Me" (1983), Williams portrays Rosa as torn between buying herself a birthday present or spending her family's hard-earned money on something they can all enjoy. In "Music, Music for Everyone" (1984), the last book in the Rosa trio, the girl raises money and community spirit to help her grandmother.

Williams' other books include "Three Days on a River in a Red Canoe" (1981), "Cherries and Cherry Pits" (1986) and "Scooter" (1993). Her last book, "Home at Last," will be published next year.

As an activist, Williams campaigned for women's rights, nonviolence and the environment. She occasionally served time for her beliefs, including a 1981 arrest during a women's blockade of the Pentagon that led to a month in a federal prison camp in Alderson, W.Va.

"I don't make a point of ending up in jail," she told Feitlowitz. "But if you try to put your hopes and beliefs for a better life into effect, arrest is sometimes a hazard.

"I have to be able to say I did something to try to save our planet from destruction. It is my faith that we will."

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