Vera Baker was born in Los Angeles, California, on January 28, 1927. She and her family moved to New York City when she was quite young. Luckily for Vera, they lived near a studio space called Bronx House where she learned painting, writing, acting, and dance. When she was nine-years-old, one of her paintings, called "Yentas," was put on exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. She was filmed there explaining to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt the meaning behind her work. The Movietone film reel ran before the regular features at the movies. This, Vera recalled, made her quite a big shot in the neighborhood!
She attended Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Black Mountain was a very unusual college, begun by teachers who had fled the Nazis in the 1930s. Looking for a peaceful way to learn and live together, students and faculty studied the arts and practical crafts needed to be self-sufficient. Vera learned to plant corn, make butter, work a printing press, and build her own house. She also graduated with a degree in graphic arts and married a fellow student, Paul Williams. They lived at Gate Hill Cooperative with other graduates of Black Mountain College from 1953 to 1970. Through the years, Vera became involved in politics and demonstrated for non-violence and the rights of women and children.
Vera and her husband raised three children at Gate Hill, and she taught in the community school. After her divorce in 1970, she moved to Canada and lived on a houseboat in Vancouver while working as a teacher and a baker. She loved the Yukon River and took a 500-mile trip down it. Vera later captured much of the joy of her travels in the children's book, Three Days on a River in a Red Canoe, which combines how-to information with the story of an amazing family adventure. This book won a Parents' Choice Award for Illustration.
Books about Rosa and Her Family
When Vera was growing up in Brooklyn, she and her family didn't have a lot of money, especially for any luxuries like nice furniture. A Chair for My Mother is based on the memory of her mother wishing for and wanting a new chair so much that it put the family finances in trouble as they struggled to pay for the chair in installments. In Vera's book, she changed what happened to make it a warmer story. The mother, so tired from working all day, brings a big, empty jar from the restaurant where she works. Over time, the jar fills up with little savings from here and there. When the chair is finally bought outright, Grandma, Rosa, and Mother all enjoy a rest on its plush and comforting cushions.
A Chair for My Mother won the Caldecott Honor in 1983. Vera took us back to visit Rosa and her family twice more. In Something Special for Me, this time around the savings from the big jar will be used for something that Rosa wants. She finds the perfect gift, one that gives joy to herself and others. Music, Music for Everyone finds Rosa using her special gift to help raise money for her family when her grandmother is ill.
Stringbean's Trip to the Shining Sea
Although the Rosa stories take place in a friendly neighborhood, Vera understood the excitement of traveling far. When Stringbean and his older brother take off (with their parents' permission) on a trip from their home in the Heartland to the California Coast, Stringbean faithfully sends back postcards from all the strange and exciting places they visit along the way. Like Three Days on a River in a Red Canoe, Stringbean's Trip to the Shining Sea recreates the wonders and hardships of a family trip. Along the way, Stringbean grows up quite a bit and learns important things about his family's past.
Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart
This is another story pulled together from fragments of Vera's childhood. Unlike her other writings, Vera has the sisters speak to us from simple poems. Plain and short, they carry the feelings and tell of events that happened to two young girls who needed to look after each other. As in her Rosa books, the family is living through hard times.
Amber's and Essie's father has gone to jail, and their mother must work very hard to support them. Amber, the little sister, cannot really understand what has happened. Neither sister knows whether or not life will ever be better or how they should feel about their father now. Amber Was Brave... has a lot of artistry to it. With only the barest of words, which ring true to the thoughts of the young girls, the author manages to convey a world of hurt, love, and forgiving.
Scooter is another story about a child dealing with changes. When Elana Rose Rosen and her mother first moved to an apartment in New York City, "Lanny" is lonely for her father, her cousin, and her grandparents back in California. But with her beautiful blue and silver scooter, she finds the courage to try to make new friends. Scooter is written in Lanny's own words with great honesty, giving full expression to her joy, jealousy, anger, and outrage. Brave and resourceful, Elana Rose Rosen is a terrific kid to get to know.
- Born: January 28, 1927, in Los Angeles, California
- Parents: Albert Baker and Rebecca (Porringer) Baker, Jewish immigrants
- Attended: the High School of Music and Arts in Manhattan; bachelor's degree in graphic arts from Black Mountain College in North Carolina
- Married: Paul Williams (divorced in 1970)
- Children: Sarah, Jennifer, and Merce
- The First Book (illustrated): Hooray for Me! with text by Remy Charlip and Lilian Moore;
- The First Book (written and illustrated): It's a Gingerbread House: Bake It, Build It, Eat It
- Selected Awards: Caldecott Honors for "More More More" Said the Baby and A Chair for My Mother; Parents' Choice Award (illustration) for Three Days on a River in a Red Canoe; Jane Addams Honor for Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart; Regina Medal of the Catholic Library Association for her body of work; NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature for her body of work.
- Arrested at a women's anti-war protest at the Pentagon in 1981 and served a month at a federal prison camp in Alderson, West Virginia.
- Died: October 16, 2015
Vera on the Web
Black Mountain College: An Introduction
From PBS, a little history behind the famous North Carolina school of the 30s and 40s that focused on liberal arts and communal living.
In Her Own Words...
The author relates significant events in her life in this short essay for Harper Collins.
Vera B. Williams from Biography Resource Center and Who's Who Database
Use your CRRL library card to access these articles from Contemporary Authors, Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, and St. James Guide to Children's Writers.
"Vera B. Williams, 88, Dies; Brought Working Class to Children's Books"
Vera died on October 16, 2015. Here is her obituary from The New York Times.