Early last year, I chatted via phone with author Patricia McKissack for this interview at Chapter 16, Humanities Tennessee’s informative online book journal that focuses on author events across Tennessee and new releases from Tennessee writers. (McKissack was actually born in the county near Nashville where I currently live.) I can easily recall her warm laughter as we talked; it was a pleasure to speak with her. Less than a month after that interview posted, I was writing her obituary for that same site. McKissack died on April 7 of that year, and it was a prodigious loss for the children’s literature community. But her many fans will be happy to know that her final book, What Is Given from the Heart, will be on shelves in early January—just a little over two weeks from today. And it is magnificent.
South Carolina fine artist April Harrison was chosen to illustrate this story about a mother and her son, down on their luck, who reach out in kindness to help those in need. This is Harrison’s debut picture book, and in the book’s dedication she speaks directly to her grandchildren, writing that when their parents were small, she would special-order McKissack’s children’s books just for them. “Who knew,” she adds, “that one day I would illustrate her picture book and be able to share this wonderful legacy with the children of my children!” Then, addressing McKissack, whom she didn’t have the opportunity to meet, she writes: “May God’s peace and love continue to rest upon you, and may your voice be forever remembered in the hearts of children everywhere.” Cue the tears.
Yep, Harrison had me at the dedication. And yet. The story itself is also quite stirring, so I had to scramble for even more tissues. McKissack had a talent, after all, for crafting such emotionally compelling and truly moving, yet never cloying, tales.
The book opens with sorrow: “It was a rough few months for Mama and me.” James Otis hugs his mother, who has certainly seen better days. The family is poor, and Daddy has passed. Mama and James Otis weren’t even able to afford to bury him in a suit. They lose their farm and move to a “run-down shotgun house in the Bottoms.” Despite her loss, Mama does her best to cultivate gratitude, telling her son that as long as they have their health and strength, they are “blessed.”
One Sunday, their pastor announces the congregation will donate to a family in need: a woman named Irene Temple and her daughter have lost all they own in a house fire. While Mama transforms her only tablecloth into an apron for Mrs. Temple, James Otis ponders what he can give the girl, named Sarah, finally deciding he’ll write and illustrate a book just for her.
This is a terrifically child-friendly book, spinning the story as it does from James Otis’s point of view. The language, particularly the boy’s dialogue, is especially authentic and effective. “Naw” or “unh-unh,” he often says to himself, as he struggles to decide what he can give the girl. “I looked over at my beautiful sparkling rock, the one I’d found down by the creek,” we read. “But how would that help Sarah? You can’t eat a rock.” Out of the mouth of babes, as they say.
James Otis is a thoughtful boy, who takes the pastor’s words to heart. From the pulpit, he tells the congregation that “what is given from the heart reaches the heart.” Remembering how much he loves the book Things That Roll (and one gets the sense it’s the only book he owns) — but deciding not to give it to Sarah, since “maybe she didn’t like trucks and marbles and such”—James Otis puts his crayons, pencil, and paper to use to make Sarah her own book. He even names this story, which is all about her, From My Heart to Your Heart. Sarah is utterly delighted, hugging the book to her chest and even covering her mouth to “catch a giggle” when she realizes she herself is the protagonist of the tale.
After the congregation gives the Temples their gifts and James Otis and his mother head home, the mother telling the son she’s proud of him “’cause you’re … you,” they are greeted by a “love box” that has also been delivered to them. This is a family that desperately needs the kinds of things in the box—food and a few toys—and McKissack’s final words, in italics for even more emphasis, are: “And our hearts rejoiced! Our hearts rejoiced!” This is a genuinely heartwarming ending to the very last moving, lyrical (as always) story from the master storyteller that was Patricia McKissack.
If I had a direct line to the publishing gods, I’d ask them to ensure April Harrison gets to illustrate more picture books. These illustrations, rendered via acrylics, collage, pen, and found objects, call forth the dignity and grace of James Otis’s community. The muted, earth-toned colors let Harrison’s textures and beautiful, detailed patterns take focus. Harrison also captures body language splendidly, particularly the exchange between James Otis and Sarah.
There could be no better gift left to us from the legendary McKissack than this poignant, lovingly rendered story.
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.
WHAT IS GIVEN FROM THE HEART. Text copyright © 2019 by Patricia C. McKissack. Illustrations copyright © 2019 by April Harrison and used by permission of the publisher, Schwartz & Wade Books, New York.