UNCLE JED'S BARBERSHOP
Margaree King Mitchell; illustrated by James Ransome
Simon & Schuster
29 pages. $15; ages 5-8
Sarah Jean's Uncle Jed was the only barber for their rural hamlet. He made his living traveling for miles and miles along dirt roads to black sharecroppers' homes to practice his trade during the Depression. While he was more likely to be paid in eggs and produce than in cash, he tried to save what money he made for the barbershop he hoped to own some day.
But Uncle Jed readily gives his savings to 5-year-old Sarah Jean's family. Uncle Jed is in his 70s before his dream is realized, but Sarah Jean, by then a woman, is there to enjoy the moment.
In her debut children's book, Margaree King Mitchell does an admirable job of showing young readers the value of persistance, patience and hard work in reaching one's goals, as well as the importance of family. Accompanying pictures, by an award-winning illustrator, have a Norman Rockwell sort of charm and help convey the emotion-packed story. According to Bonnie Friedman, every book has three authors. The first is the icon whose picture appears on the cover. The expression in the eyes is remote, unconfused, seeming to say, "I wrote this, and this is just the beginning."
You can't see the second person writing the book. But that writer is the cherished companion who perseveres. Helping one search for the right word, this person never admits to despair, believing instead that what seems empty or fruitless will provide inspiration.
The third person writing a book is the dumbfounded narrator, working to discover the important, the strange and the %o pleasurable, and to put that discovery into lasting and far-reaching words.
Trying to draw a line between her own experience and universal experience, Ms. Friedman describes writing from the inside. At times, her book (a chapter appeared as an essay in the New York Times Book Review) seems a little too bright, although what it says can be helpful. A better subtitle would be this: "What you already know about writing but seldom think of."
THE ADVENTURES OF STOUT MAMA
128 pages. $14
Stout Mama -- a somewhat precious name for a woman who deserves better -- is a middle-aged feminist who has made peace with her legs (she doesn't shave them) but not her toes (she still feels compelled to paint them). She seems the alter-ego of author Sibyl James; both academics, both travelers, both proud of their politics at a time when "politically correct" has been diluted down to describe people who recycle their grocery bags.
Stout Mama philosophizes on the world in snippy little essays, and refuses to cave in. She doesn't know what the initials in VCR stand for; she likes a fattening Chinese beer and a plate of doughy dumplings, "fried in rhythms of some other century, as stubbornly out of step as hearts." Some of these pieces are too cute by half, and irritatingly naive; her quick take on menopause seems obvious and shallow, her plan for revenge on a misbehaving lover starts out with great comic promise and then fizzles. These read too often like the off-handed observations of a very smart cookie who could use a little self-discipline.
Only rarely do the ideas come forth shaped and groomed, the way good little essays should. Stout Mama can be provocative when she has her head on straight, but she's a bit too sloppy about her thought processes to be dependable.