I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again: It’s not often you see contemporary picture books that address class issues—in ways, that is, that are seamless and subtle. There’s a new one on shelves, though, written by Eve Bunting. Let’s just call it like it is: She’s a national treasure, Bunting is. She has tremendous respect for child readers. And Yard Sale, this new story, is a great example of the high regard she has for them. With art by Caldecott Honor illustrator Lauren Castillo, it’s a moving story about one girl’s fears—and attempts to acclimate to big change.
In the opening spread, we see this girl sitting on the front steps of her porch, and we read that nearly everything she owns is spread out in her yard. Her family is having a yard sale, because they will be moving from their house to a small apartment. Her parents try hard to convince her to like the new place, having even shown her the Murphy bed in the living room that she’ll sleep in. But the girl has trouble adjusting. “It didn’t feel like ours,” she says.
At the yard sale, she’s watching strangers pick up her belongings and all of her family’s stuff. She watches one woman ask for a $5 discount on the headboard from the girl’s own bed (offering to pay a grand total of $5 for it), because it has crayon marks on it. Those crayon marks, readers learn on the same page, are ones the girl put there, one for each time she’d read Goodnight Moon.
This is traumatic stuff for any child, and the girl’s confusion turns to anger when she sees a man putting her bike into his truck. (I like how Bunting lays out the circumstances and the girl’s feelings in a very clear-cut way, never mincing words and not trying to wow us with any metaphorical acrobatics: “I’m really angry,” the girl notes at one point.) Her father has to explain to her that there’s no sidewalk at their new place, which is why the bike is for sale too. The poor girl is doing her very best to wrap her mind around the sale of all of her family’s things.
There’s another big sadness, however, and that’s where the class issue comes in: The girl has to say goodbye to an income that allows for a particular way of life. When her neighbor friend, Sara, comes over for a visit, the girl tells her that she doesn’t fully understand what’s going on but that “it’s something to do with money.” It seems that either one or both parents have lost a job or there’s been a significant change in employment to warrant a sizing-down, a move to a more economically feasible home. Such a thing happened to my family when I was young—and it happens to many children every day—and I remember vividly how scary it was. And confusing.
One thing that Bunting does so well is that she gives us a glimpse into the parents’ struggle too—from the girl’s point of view. When her father is telling her why her bike is for sale, Bunting writes: “I look up at him, and I think his eyes are all teary. But probably not. My dad doesn’t cry.” Later, when the yard sale is nearly over, the girl notes that her parents “look droopy. My dad is rubbing my mom’s back.” They are very clearly trying their best to adjust as well.
Bunting includes the types of details to which children often attend: For one, when the girl hugs Sara, she notes that she “smells of Froot Loops.” And her conversation with Sara rings so true. At one point, Sara says she’ll give her baby brother Petey to her parents or that she could ask her parents if the girl could stay and live with her, but the girl’s response is that, no offense, but she’d miss both mom and dad if they weren’t around.
The girl’s confusion and sadness comes to a head at the book’s close after a kind elderly woman makes a perfectly innocuous comment, which frightens the girl and which she thoroughly misconstrues. The family, as a result, end up in a group hug, and it’s a genuinely moving moment that sings with an emotional honesty. Castillo’s warm and restrained ink and watercolor illustrations capture the emotions without overwhelming the reader.
A lovely and honest story about a hard topic.
YARD SALE. Text copyright © 2015 by Eve Bunting. Illustrations copyright © 2015 by Lauren Castillo. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.