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Cover image for Mr. Williams
Mr. Williams
1st ed.
Publication Information:
New York : Henry Holt and Co., 2005.
Physical Description:
1 v. (unpaged) : col. ill. 26 cm.
Reading Level:
650 L Lexile


Material Type
Call Number
Item Available
Book J 921 WILLIAMS 1 1
Book J 921 WILLIAMS 1 1
Book E 921 WILLIAMS 0 1

On Order



The powerful and personal story of one American childhood

When Mr. Williams was a boy growing up in Arcadia, Louisiana, Calvin Coolidge was president, Martin Luther King Jr. had just been born, and children worked hard in the fields for most of the year.

Many years later, Karen Barbour grew up hearing Mr. Williams tell stories about his childhood. In this beautiful book, she not only shares the memories he passed on to her but also creates stunning paintings to illustrate them.

The story of Mr. J. W. Williams, lovingly told by his friend, evokes a specific time and place in American history in a way that is immediate, intimate, and relevant.

"Barbour's meticulously rendered artwork and Mr. Williams' astute observations vividly dramatize a distinct moment in American history, well worth remembering." - Publishers Weekly

Author Notes

Karen Barbour is an award-winning illustrator of many books for children, including I Have an Olive Tree by Eve Bunting. She lives in Point Reyes Station, California.

Reviews 5

School Library Journal Review

K-Gr 3-Recounting stories told by J. W. Williams, a friend of her mother's, Barbour captures the essence of a black Louisiana farmer's life in the early 20th century. In this first-person narrative, Mr. Williams describes his childhood, depicting an austere daily routine of hard work punctuated by Sundays and seasonal changes and embellished by his joy in the natural world. "On summer evenings, I'd lie on the porch with a pillow-[and] listen to the owls hollering-and foxes barking their funny little dog barks." Racism was a fact of life, but the text does not dwell on it. Williams does recall the young white men who regularly tried to run him over as he walked to school: "I was scared of some white people. They'd scare you up pretty good. If you ever saw white people you'd go way around them." The words are succinct but evocative of a larger picture, which Barbour leaves for readers to paint for themselves. The ink-and-gouache illustrations, punctuated with well-placed bits of fabric collage, are perfect. Polka-dotted cotton fields, unpainted raw floorboards, skin tones ranging from tan to gray to blue, and a radiant sun add texture and temperature to the pictures. The beauty of this book comes from the synergy of the spare narrative and rich artwork. The contrast makes each one more compelling; together they are powerful. This exquisite piece of oral history will surely elicit conversations about race, but it also provides a terrific opportunity to discuss the beauty of a simple life lived well.-Mary Hazelton, Elementary Schools in Warren & Waldoboro, ME (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Publisher's Weekly Review

Barbour's (I Have an Olive Tree) picture-book biography records the reminiscences ("as he told them to me," says an author's note) of Mr. Williams, born in 1929 on an African-American farmstead in Arcadia, La. From the unadorned language, peppered with particulars, a poetic simplicity emerges: "I grew up in a house made of pine with my mother and father and six brothers, five sisters, cows, pigs, chickens, guinea hens, turkeys, dogs, cats, and four mules and one horse." Readers gain a wealth of information about the era. The family received regular ice deliveries, for instance, and drank and bathed in well water because they had no electricity. Children will revel in details about farm life ("Everyone took care of his own mule. You fed it oats and hay and brushed it twice a day.... They'd roll in the dirt and you'd have to brush them all over again"), and Barbour does not shy away from the more unpleasant side of life in the South for Mr. Williams. Sometimes in the winter, as he walked to school, a young white driver would try to run him off the road. Barbour's exquisite paintings combine dark outlines, thick brushstrokes and startling colors (pink mules, a purple star-studded sky), occasionally integrating collage elements of intricate patterns. In her hands, the fields look magical at harvest time, erupting in blossoms and fruits. Barbour's meticulously rendered artwork and Mr. Williams' astute observations vividly dramatize a distinct moment in American history, well worth remembering. Ages 6-10. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Horn Book Review

Although this book's focus is on one man--J. W. Williams, a childhood friend of the author/illustrator--this is less a biography and more a glimpse at everyday life for an African-American family on a Louisiana farm during the 1930s. Using a mixture of gouache, ink, and collage, Barbour's naive-style paintings deftly capture the matter-of-fact first-person text. (c) Copyright 2010. The Horn Book, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted. All rights reserved.

Kirkus Review

Mr. J.W. Williams grew up in rural Louisiana during the Depression. He tells of his large family surviving by hard work, faith and love. Each family member contributed, including the horses and mules. But there is also storytelling of traditional folktales and mouthwatering home cooking using the foods produced on the farm. There is a sense of the rhythm of the seasons filled with sights, sounds, smell and touch. As an African-American of his time, he could not escape the fear that accompanied the ugliness of bigotry, but he does not allow it to sour the loving remembrances. In an author's note, Balfour explains that she has attempted to faithfully adhere to the stories she heard directly from Mr. Williams. The wonderful folk art-style gouache-and-ink illustrations are filled with lovely color and perfectly match the simplicity of the text. What a delightful way to show young readers "how it was back then." (Picture book/nonfiction. 6-10) Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Booklist Review

K-Gr. 3. Drawing on her childhood memories of Mr. Williams telling stories, Barbour has put together a picture-book biography that combines her handsome paintings with Williams' direct, first-person narrative about growing up African American in Arcadia, Louisiana, in the 1930s and '40s. It's a story of hard work during the growing season--ploughing, planting, picking cotton, picking corn--and of walking five miles to school in the winter. The fear of abuse is honestly presented (if you ever saw white people you'd go way round them ), as is the harshness of everyday life without electricity or running water. But the memories of home are still idyllic, and the full-color, double-page spreads in gouache and ink on paper and collage show Williams' large family together, hard at work and around the table. A good starting place for oral history projects across the curriculum. --Hazel Rochman Copyright 2005 Booklist

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