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NARROWSBURG, NY — Vera B. Williams, an acclaimed artist and author of books for children, passed away on October 16, as her work was being shown and celebrated at the Delaware Valley Arts Alliance in Narrowsburg.
Williams, who had a house in Narrowsburg, was often mentioned in the pages of The River Reporter (most recently in last week’s Currents feature), often as the recipient of a prestigious award. In 2013, “A Chair for My Mother,” perhaps Williams’ best known work was chosen as one of the 100 Greatest Children’s Books of the Last Century by the New York Public Library.
Williams was born in 1927 in the Bronx in a family that had a deep respect for the arts and politics. Her parents were immigrants, her father from Russia and her mother from Poland. She and her sister Naomi went to the Bronx House, a cultural and arts center started by wealthy individuals, women in particular, to help immigrant families adapt to American life. There Vera became interested in art and drawing, but books and writing were also a big part of her life.
She started writing stories for children while in high school, and what follows is an excerpt from a story about Vera by TRR reporter Sandy Long from 2008: “Williams’ appreciation for the young is evident in her many award-winning titles, which provide stories of the heart where children and adults deal with real-life challenges in ways that show the resiliency of the human spirit and the transformative power of love.
“‘I think of myself as an advocate for childhood,’ said the spunky author/illustrator, whose bright eyes and mischievous smile create the perception that Williams has managed to preserve a child’s penchant for wonder, and the great adventure of life, into her ninth decade.
“Williams likes ‘people and characters who are glad they were born and are making the most of that singular opportunity,’ and she has created books that don’t shy from the sometimes difficult realities of growing up. ‘Some things that are hard for a child to express can be said for her or him through story and picture. You can’t shield children from everything. Enough children have terrible things to cope with, but many manage to be spirited despite difficult lives,’ she said.
“Her book ‘Amber was Brave, Essie was Smart’ was inspired by memories of early childhood with her sister and mother during the temporary absence of their father, probably due to imprisonment. Family history is unclear about this, but Williams has made it a fact of her characters’ lives as it may be for more than a few of her readers (though rarely written about).
“In a HarperCollins essay by Williams about the book, she wrote, ‘I’ve been close to the world of children all my life, as teacher, parent, grandparent as well as children’s author/illustrator. I feel how all children, not just the unlucky ones, face bewildering happenings and mysterious adult emotions. But like my characters, they are brave and smart! They take life into their small hands, intent on having the joy and hope and play of childhood no matter what.’”
The evening after she died, Vera B. Williams received a Lifetime Achievement Award from DVAA.