Karen Hesse, born in Baltimore, is an award-winning author whose books have been recognized with awards such as the Newberry Medal for “Out of the Dust”, Koret Jewish Book Award, Sydney Taylor Award, CCBC Choices and others. Many of her books reflect her interest in historical fiction. Like this reviewer, Karen Hesse graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in English. She also wrote a book with a title that captured my attention. The book is “Spuds”, published in September 2008.
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A single, hard-working mother leaves her three children at home to work the night shift. Jack and Maybelle concoct a wild scheme to both help their mother and also put food on the table. Pulling little Eddie in a wagon with some empty sacks, the children set off to a neighbor’s potato field with visions of those empty sacks soon bursting with potato bounty. The quest is exciting; evading detection in the cold night under a full moon, and jumping into a ditch to escape the headlights of a passing car thrills the three young heats to bursting.
Jack pulls the wagon with Eddie, and “Maybelle trudged like an old mule dragging them tater sacks behind her.” When they get home, Maybelle puts Eddie to bed while Jack empties a bag of spuds on the hard linoleum floor, and “bends down to sort the muddy clumps.” Jack sees his purloined cache in the kitchen light, and as Maybelle comes to join him, he feels an aching hole open up inside his heart.
The rest of the story deals with detection, confession, and restitution. Pain, anguish, and anger all dissipate, replaced by the love and close bond of the family unit who obviously care for each other deeply. Gloom and despair abate. Smiles and hope prevail.
The story is first rate with elements of suspense, tension, and surprise. The story flows smoothly and naturally from one event to the next, from scene to scene seamlessly.
The first and last pages show the children sitting at the kitchen table but the differences in mood in the two scenes are dramatic. Hesse’s use of country dialect is appropriate for the setting and the time, but it might be confusing to very young readers. The large format of the book invites read-aloud sharing.
Illustrations – Wendy Watson’s art is created using pencil, colored ink, watercolor, and gouache on watercolor pages. Her talent is impressive, and her technique enhances the story wonderfully. One can’t help but notice and absorb the details like those of a metal bucket and washboard under a large old fashioned sink. The panoramic scene of the children preparing to depart at dusk, treeless fields reaching to the horizon under a pinkish sky, is impressive and memorable. The gradual darkening of the page scenes successfully contributes to the story’s mood while the welcome brightness of the final pages befits the story’s ending.
Characters – Hesse gives her characters a depth and range not common in a short children’s book. Maturity is forced upon them by the harshness of their bleak situation. The intensity of what goes before makes the brightness of the ending all the sweeter.
Children will need some help understanding the depression era slang like:
“headed out in that rattle-bang fashion.”
“Maybelle, she goosed us with the meals Ma’d make…”
“We commenced to cockadoodlin’…”
Few words in the story are longer than two syllables.
Hesse’s tater rich book about some well-meaning tater snatching kids satisfies like a large helping of hot, steaming, mashed potatoes on a chilly evening.
Dimensions: 11 x 9.1 x 0.4 inches
Printed in Singapore, September 2008
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