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A Chair for My Mother by Vera B. Williams Children's Book Review
English Hardcover Edition
A Chair for My Mother by Vera B. Williams is the story of a young girl named Rosa, her hard-working mother, and their grandmother. This children's picture book is a Caldecott Honor Book that has three sequels, Something Special For Me, Music, Music for Everyone, and A Chair For Always.
Author Vera B. Williams refers to these books as "the chair books", and all are inspired by her own life, growing up in Depression-era New York with a mother who held down jobs and participated in causes like organizing credit unions and defying creditors. Understandably, the topic of economics and her family's relationship with money inspired her writing.
A Chair For My Mother Story Summary
In A Chair For My Mother, Rosa narrates the story of how she sometimes works with her mother at the diner and earns some extra money, which she saves in a huge jar along with her mother's earnings. They are saving for a big, beautiful easy chair, where her mother, a waitress, can rest her weary feet at the end of the day.
The family has very few possessions, because, as Rosa remembers in the story, everything they own was destroyed in a fire a year earlier. They came home one day from shopping for a new pair of shoes, and discovered their house ablaze. Everything they owned was turned to blackened charcoal. After the fire, the neighbors in Rosa's community banded together to give her family what they could: A small table with three chairs, a children's bed, and a teddy bear. But still their family has very little. Rosa's grandmother offers words of gratitude for her neighbors' generosity "You are the kindest people," she said, "and we thank you very, very much. It's lucky we're young and can start all over."
For a year Rosa and her family make do with their possessions until the money jar is completely full. Rosa, her mother, and even her grandmother save everything they can until their money jar is full. Then Rosa and her mother exchange their money at the bank for a stack of 10-dollar bills, and they take their savings shopping to buy a brand new, perfect chair. They choose a beautiful chair with flowers on it that is big enough for Rosa and her mother to share. The chair is used by everyone, including Rosa's grandmother, who sits at the window during the day.
A Chair for My Mother is narrated from the viewpoint of a child, and the voice of the narrator is thus one of childlike simplicity. But I find Williams' story profoundly and deeply moving. This is a story of a family's relationships: though Rosa and her mother and grandmother have been economically devastated by the fire, their actions of carrying on through the worst of it, and showing simple grattitude for their neighbor and family's help, shows them to be a family that is deeply and emotionally wealthy.
This story is rich in humanity and heart, and Rosa's mother is a courageous example to her daughter. At the beginning of the story, where Rosa describes helping to work at the diner, she is matter-of-fact, but her pride resonates through her simple and straightforward words.
One one level, this book is the story of a family's efforts to save their money to buy a chair. Their thrift and resourcefulness is honorable and even praiseworthy. But the chair is a symbol of overcoming the traumatic hardship of a devastating fire that took away everything they owned. And yet, the chair isn't really the point of the story, but the story of the family working together in love and unity to achieve their goal. It is easy to see why this book is a Caldecott Honor book.
This book especially resonates with me because when my father was four years old, his family home burned to the ground. His mother, father and sister were miraculously safe from the devastating effects of the fire, but they too lost everything. This story has a realism that doesn't smack you in the face. It is a simple, honest fact of life that people sometimes face devastating difficulties not of their own making, and yet, they survive.
Sequels, or The Other Chair Books
- Something Special For Me by Vera B. Williams. In this sequel to A Chair for My Mother Rosa's family save up to buy a treat, and decide to allow Rosa to purchase something for herself. The money jar makes its second appearance in this book about Rosa's family.
- Music, Music for Everyone by Vera B Williams is the next installment in the chair books. This time, Rosa draws upon her musical talents and the talents of friends to raise money for her ailing grandmother. This book has a pleasing community message, is also about children and money, and anyone who loves accordion music will relish this book.
- A Chair for Always by Vera B. Williams was published over 20 years after the publication of the first Chair book. This story looks with fondness at the now worn and dirty chair that was such a treasure when Rosa and her family first bought it. The book combines the story of the chair, symbolizing the family's past, with the birth of Aunt Ida and Uncle Sandy's new baby, combining the old and new in a sentimental and heartful way.
- Joseph Had a Little Overcoat by Simms Taback is the Caldecott award-winning story about a tailor named Joseph who reuses his worn overcoat in the ultimate story about repurposing clothing. This storybook features appealing illustrations that cut away to each new page. Please read my full review of this story here.
- Too Many Pumpkins by Linda White is about a little old woman named Rebecca Estelle who turns her hatred for pumpkins into a community feast. This is one of my favorite books about thrift and giving and is perfect for fall and harvest reading, or as part of a unit about communities. Please read my full review of this story here.
- The King With Six Friends by Jay Williams is a story about overcoming hardships. King Zar has just lost his kingdom and is out of a job. He must seek the help of his six new friends who have magical powers to regain kingship and marry the beautiful princess. Please read my full review of this story here.
- The Little Red Hen and the Passover Matzah is another story about thrift and hard work that deserves a mention. This Jewish Passover-themed retelling of the Little Red Hen folk tale is amusing and instructive, and the heroine of the story is a mensch! Read my full review of this story here.
Vera B Williams Speaks About Her Mother and Her Writing
- Saving Money
- Overcoming Loss
- Family Love
A Note for Teachers and Storytime Presenters
OK, I'll admit it. This story chokes me up. It is a long story as picture books go, so I recommend it for kindergarten ages and up. But I also strongly suggest that you practice reading this book once or twice through in case, like me, this book makes you blubber!
Lesson Plans Links for Teachers
- K-2 Lesson Plan from the UPromise Scholastic website: A Chair for My Mother: Understanding the Concepts of Earning and Saving.
- Elementary School Economics Lesson recommended for grades 1-4: No such thing as a free lunch Powell Center for Economic Literacy Lesson. This lesson plan is saved as a PDF file, so go to the site and search for "Chair for My Mother" through the titles.
- A Grade One Saving Money lesson includes extensive activities and literature tie-ins to A Chair for My Mother.
- Stock Market Investing and Children: Teach Them Correct Principles. This article explores the pros and cons of participating in stock market simulations with students, and suggests economic principles missed by some of these competitions.
- Stock Market Investing and Children: Risk Versus Return Game. This simple game you can play in a classroom setting or in a small-group or homeschool situation uses probability (rolling dice) to show the principle of risk versus return. This key investing concept is an important part of teaching kids about money.
More Children's Books
I invite you to read one of over 40 reviews of my favorite children's books:
Animals Should Definitely Not Wear Clothing by Judi Barrett · A Chair for My Mother by Vera B. Williams · Babies by Gyo Fujikawa · Brown Bear Brown Bear What Do You See by Bill Martin and Eric Carle · Charley Harper's ABCs by Charlie Harper · Christmas Cookies: Bite-Size Holiday Lessons · Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes · Daughter of a King by Rachel Ann Nunes · Excuse Me! By Lisa Kopelke · Gregory the Terrible Eater by Mitchell Sharmat · Harry and The Terrible Whatzit by Dick Gackenbach · Hilda Must Be Dancing by Karma Wilson · I Need My Monster by Amanda Noll · I'd Choose You by John Trent · Joseph Had a Little Overcoat by Simms Taback · King of Kings by Susan Hill · Ladybug Girl by Jacky Davis and David Soman · Lily's Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes · Llama Llama Mad at Mama by Anna Dewdney · Llama Llama Misses Mama by Anna Dewdney · Mister Seahorse by Eric Carle · No David! by David Shannon · Olivia by Ian Falconer · Out of the Ocean by Debra Frasier · Snowballs by Lois Ehlert · So Much by Trish Cooke and Helen Oxenbury · Souperchicken by Mary Jane and Herm Auch · The Gingerbread Boy by Paul Galdone · The Grouchy Ladybug by Eric Carle · The King With Six Friends by Jay Williams · The Little Red Hen and the Passover Matzah by Leslie Kimmelman · The Little Red Hen Makes a Pizza by Philemon Sturges · The Littlest Angel by Charles Tazewell · The Patchwork Quilt by Valerie Flournoy · The Red Shoes a Fairy Tale by Gloria Fowler and Sun Young Yoo · The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats · Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel · Too Many Pumpkins by Linda White · Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak · Yoon and the Christmas Mitten by Helen Recorvits