This is one of two winners of the Claudia Lewis Poetry Award for 2002:
Amber was Brave, Essie was Smart by Vera B. Williams (Greenwillow, 2001)
Here is a Digital Trailer for Amber was Brave, Essie was Smart created by graduate student Jessica Holland.
Here is a Readers' Guide for Amber was Brave, Essie was Smart created by graduate student Stephanie Knoebel.
Williams, Vera B. 2001. Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. ISBN 0060294604.
Recommended Age Levels: 7-13
Summary of Book
Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart, Amber is the main character, while Essie is her sister. They are very poor and have to rely on one another. The two girls cuddle together with Amber’s teddy bear Wilson in a “Best Sandwich” in order to keep warm because their heater is broken. They cannot use a telephone, because their mother cannot pay the bill. Their mother works hard to take care of the family, but she is not around often, except for late in the evenings and on Sunday. Sunday is finger nail painting day and their mother ends up insulting their new friend Nata-Lee who has recently moved in on the top floor of their building. Their dad is in jail because he forged a check. This is devastating for Amber, and she sends him her braids to ensure that he remembers her.
The poems reveal the relationship of Amber and Essie as both sisters and confidantes. We really feel their inner struggles with the world, their family, and each other. The story is so direct, yet the emotions are so rich. The pictures help emphasize that also by going from black and white to colored pencil drawings. In the end, they go with their uncle and mom to buy groceries just before their dad comes home.
“Williams opens with full-color portraits of the girls and closes with pastel drawings of the more dramatic moments; she punctuates the poems with black-and-white pencil drawings that convey the deep affection between these sympathetic sisters. Though the author taps into difficult themes, by relaying the events through the eyes of the two girls, she maintains a ray of hope throughout the volume.”
• Publishers Weekly
“Williams's heartwarming story takes readers on the emotional roller-coaster ride that is Amber and Essie's life. Williams's spare and touching verses capture every detail with clarity, humor, and heart. While the text is accessible to children just venturing beyond easy-readers, the story has a great deal of substance for older readers as well. Black-pencil sketches are full of action and as lively as Williams's poems, and fully capture the joys and sorrows of the girls' life. Finally, when the story has ended (or perhaps just begun), readers are treated to a full-color album of most of the high points and some of the low points the youngsters experience. A poignant testament to what it means to have a sister.”
• School Library Journal
“Two sections of full-color pencil illustrations add surprise and detail to the text. The opener, "Introducing Amber and Essie 4 Portraits," shows the girls from front and back, giving the reader a delightfully well-rounded portrait of each. The closing section, "Amber and Essie: An Album," adds additional action and color to some of the incidents. Poems and illustrations provide a portrait of close sisterly relationship that intimately and lovingly draws the reader into the joys and sadness of their lives. A wonderful story, brilliantly told.”
• Kirkus Reviews
Awards / Honors Received
• Boston Globe–Horn Book Award Honor Book
• ALA Notable Children’s Book
• Riverbank Review Children’s Books of Distinction Award
• ALA Booklist Editors’ Choice
• Publishers Weekly Best Book
• School Library Journal Best Book
• New York Public Library's "One Hundred Titles for Reading and Sharing"
• Jane Addams Book Award Honor Book
• Horn Book Fanfare
• Book Sense 76 Pick
• Texas Bluebonnet Award Nominee 2004-2005
• Claudia Lewis Poetry Award 2002
Questions to Ask Before Reading
Have the students discuss the following questions before reading aloud Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart.
• Before showing the students the title of the book, ask "Have you ever been compared to your brother or sister?" After several responses are shared, show children the title and ask "What clues do we have that this book is going to look at the differences between two sisters?"
• Do you have a brother or sister? What are some things that you do together?
• Do you have someone that you share your feelings and experiences with? Where do you share these things? Do you always get along with them? Explain.
• What are the differences between having one person at home versus two parents at home? What would you miss most about your family if it changed?
• How does your family cheer each other up? Is there something that always happens when someone in the family is sad or going through a hard time?
• What is it like to meet someone new? Where did you meet them? How did you become friends?
• What is a routine or tradition? Do you have a routine or tradition in your family? Is there something special that your family does on a set day or occasion?
Suggestions for Reading Poems Aloud
• “Conversation Under the Bed” – Have the students separated into 5 groups (organized by their tables), so each group gets a stanza to read aloud. They may act it out as a group when it is their turn to read aloud. This will help them focus on the meaning of a stanza and the meaning in the stanza.
• “Daddy Song” – Have all the children choral read the word daddy on every other line. They will then really hear the other words emphasized and as the focus. They get to see how things evolve or change with her experience with her dad. The main idea is Daddy, and the students will pick up on that from this activity.
• “No I Won’t / Yes I Will” – Divide the students into two groups. Have them take turns being either Essie or Amber. They will act it out bantering back and forth. This poem is perfect for this, because it is written like it should be a dialogue!
Follow Up Activities
• In this poetry book, Essie helps Amber cut her braids. Amber wants to send her braids to Daddy, so he does not forget her. Amber would have liked to have included a letter with her braids. The letter would have reminded her dad why she is so special. Have the students write a personal essay about why they are special.
• In the book, Nata-Lee gets her feelings hurt on “Sunday Beauty Parlor.” The mother of Amber and Essie tells Nata-Lee that she cannot participate as fully or as well, because she does not take care of her fingers. Amber becomes embarrassed by her mother. Have the students write a personal narrative about a time when they got embarrassed by a family member.
• In the book, Nata-Lee becomes a new friend to Amber and Essie. It was a very convenient friendship, since she moved into the same building. Have the students write a personal essay about a time that they made a new friend.
• After reading the poem At the Table in Nata-Lee’s Turret House and Knowledge, discuss fractions with the students. Essie, Amber, and Nata-Lee split four apples evenly among three people. Have them think of things that they share and split among friends. Practice by splitting the pencils, crayons, erasers or snacks evenly among the students.
• After comparing the two poems, Thursday Afternoon, where money and food were difficult to obtain, and Full Cart, where money was not as much of an issue, talk to the students about money. Discuss the importance of a budget and spending money wisely. Practice by giving the students a realistic budget for groceries. Print up a list of items at the grocery store, and let them ‘purchase’ and total their mock-bill. Have them sort what they bought and determine how many meals they can make with what they bought. Afterwards, discuss positive choices. They are also then practicing addition.
• After reading the poem Amber’s Pleasure, discuss the value of 150. Bring in containers or things that have more or less than 150 items in them. Discuss with the students greater than, less than, and equal to. Students can then bring in their own items and make an anchor chart of their things that are greater than, less than, and equal to.
• Students can begin a unit of study on the Great Depression. They can research using both historical fiction and nonfiction texts. They can then compare and contrast the recession now to the Great Depression then. Additional information available at http://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/themes/great-depression/students.html.
• After reading the poem Knowledge, have the students locate the equator and the continents. Have them create and label a map. Sing the continent song, which is viewable at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NVrN-0aQV1o.
• During the Great Depression, many people struggled financially. Discuss the economic ramifications this poverty caused in the family structure.
• After reading the poem Best Sandwich, discuss friction. Amber and Essie had to try to keep warm. They chose snuggling up close to each other to do so. Have students try rubbing their hands back and forth together to create heat. Discuss why this works and identify this as friction. Also, have the students breathe on their own hands to feel heat.
• After reading the poems Amber’s Pleasure and Whoops, discuss gravity. Discuss which objects they think will hit the ground first with different objects and model it. Have the students pick an object that they would like to test in groups. Calculate the time that each object takes to reach the floor when dropped at the same height. Discuss the principle that all take the same amount of time and that it is called gravity.
• After reading the poem Full Cart, discuss the importance of a balanced nutrition. Discuss healthy foods while looking at the food pyramid. Discuss the benefits of eating healthy, such as increased energy and healthfulness. Have children create a poster advertising delicious healthy foods and their benefits.
Arts – Music, Art, Drama
• Students can create their own play to perform a Reader’s Theater. Once a script is written, allow the students to assign roles and gather props. Allow the students ample time to rehearse their parts. Let them perform their Reader’s Theater.
• Have the students write a song just like Amber did for Daddy Song.
• Review the pictures at the beginning of the book. The author Vera Williams created the pictures by using colored pencils. Take a picture of the kid’s faces and the backs of their heads. Give them their photos and have them create their own portraits using the same materials as Vera Williams.
• A counselor may use this book to lead into whole group or one-on-one discussions with children about friendship, sibling rivalry, latchkey kids, poverty, death of a parent, single parent households, or having a parent in jail.
Related Web Sites
An Interview with Vera B. Williams
[Check out this video clip to hear Vera Williams say this book is her favorite and say how it was inspired by her own life experience.]
[Check out this website for more information about the history of the Great Depression.]
Vera B. Williams
[Check out this website for more information about the author and her other works.]
Hanson, Warren. 2005. Raising You Alone. Tristan Publishing. ISBN 0972650466.
Downey, Roma. 2001. Love is a Family. Gasquet, Justine. HanpeerEntertainment. ISBN 0060393742.
Jenkins, Emily. 2004. Daffodil. Bogacki, Tomek. Farrar, Straus &Giroux. ISBN 037316767.
Amato, Mary. 2008. The Children of the Family. Durand, Delphine. Putnam. ISBN 0399241965.
Freedman, Russell. 2010. Children of the Great Depression. Sandpiper. ISBN 0547480350.
Stanley, Jerry. 1993. Children of the Dust Bowl: The True Story of the School at Weedpatch Camp. Crown Books for Young Readers. ISBN 0517880946.
Lied, Kate. 2002. Potato: A Tale from the Great Depression. National Geographic Children’s Books. ISBN 0792269462.
Winter, Jonah. 2011. Born and Bred in the Great Depression. Schwartz and Wade. ISBN 0375861971.
Hesse, Karen. 1999. Out of the Dust. Scholastic. ISBN 0590371258.
Greenfield, Eloise. 2008. Brothers and Sisters: Family Poems. Amistad. ISBN 0060562846.
George, Kristine O’Connell. 2011. Emma Dilemma: Big Sister Poems. Clarion. ISBN 0618428429.