Monday, December 21, 2015

The Groundbreaking Blue Willow by Doris Gates.

It's Janey Larkin's Turn.

The best laid plans...

Back in May of this year, I wrote a post on Julia Sauer's Fog Magic, that included some background information regarding the ongoing controversy of the time that pitted proponents of realistic fiction against advocates of imaginative fiction as far as which of the two was the "best" type of literature for children. 

On the realistic side, Doris Gates' Blue Willow was frequently cited as a groundbreaking work.   Gates, who had worked as a librarian in schools for  California's migrant population, won the 1941 Newbery Honor award for her book.

Several weeks ago I finally read Blue Willow (in one night) and did some research on the author, Doris Gates.  My recommendation is that you stop reading this post right now, go out, buy the book, read it, and order multiple copies for your library. Once those copies come in, booktalk it to every class, third grade and higher, and then give it to each teacher to read.

It's that good.

This book reads as if it were written yesterday, an amazing feat considering it was first published in 1940.  The only giveaway that it wasn't was a single reference to a fellow migrant worker as a Negro as opposed to black or African-American.  That's it.

I had intended to write the review the following day, but circumstances arose that delayed its composition until today. In the meantime, I managed to misplace both the book and my notes, so some of the information that I'd hoped to share will have to wait for another day. 

Book #36: Blue Willow (1940) by Doris Gates. 176 pages. Illustrated by Paul Lantz.

Ten-year-old Janey Larkin has only the faintest memory of life on the family's Texas ranch, and of her mother, who died when Janey was very young.  The one thing, only thing, she does have is a blue willow plate, a plate that has been in her mother's family for generations.  It is her most cherished possession, and a symbol of Janey's deepest wish, to have a permanent home of her own.

But it's the 1930s, and the loss of the family ranch due to a combination of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl has left Janey and her parents - her father remarried - to make their living as migrant farm workers up and down the West coast.  The family is close knit but not demonstrative, and Janey is required to read from their only book, the family Bible, every day to improve her reading.

The story opens with their arrival at an abandoned shack in the the San Joaquin Valley, where Mr. Larkin will work bringing in the cotton crop for the owner, Mr. Anderson. There is a Mexican family across the way, the Romeros, and Janey, after some initial resistance, becomes best friends with one of the daughters, Lupe.  The Romeros have lived in the same place for over a year, and Lupe attends the regular school in town.  Janey, who has never stayed anywhere more than a few months, attends the camp school for the children of the migrant workers.  Unlike many of the children, Janey has never worked in the fields herself; Mr. Larkin will not allow it.

Despite herself, Janey finds herself becoming more and more attached to the place and the people, and has to keep reminding herself that they could be moving on any day.  She visits a country fair, her first, with the Romeros, and her father places second in a cotton picking contest that gives the family a much needed infusion of cash.

The one fly in the ointment is the ranch's overseer,  a shifty character named Bounce Reyburn, who demands a monthly rent for the shack and only reluctantly supplies Mr. Larkin with a receipt.

The contest cash goes for some much needed necessities; tires for their car and a new coat for Janey.  When Mrs. Larkin becomes ill, there is no money for a doctor, and Bounce refuses to allow the family to stay unless he is paid.  Janey, knowing that her mother must rest to get well, offers Bounce her one possession, the blue willow plate.  He takes the plate, but it's only a temporary solution.  There's no more work for Mr. Larkin, and the family needs to move on.  Janey, desperate for a final look at her blue willow plate, makes her way to the ranch owner's house.

The ranch owner, Mr. Anderson, knows nothing about any blue willow plate, but soon coaxes the entire story from Janey.  Furious, he fires Bounce and offers Mr. Larkin Bounce's old job, an offer he quickly accepts.

Janey Larkin has come home.

This book is so good on so many levels, it's difficult to know where to start.  Janey is a thoroughly believable little girl as are her parents. Was it a fairytale ending? Of course it was, but sometimes, if rarely, fairytales do come true.  Gates doesn't sugarcoat the extreme poverty or the precariousness of the migrant worker's life, and she also avoids making Janey and her family symbols as opposed to real flesh and blood individuals. The Romeros are never stereotyped Mexican as was common in children's stories back then, and even Bounce, a true s.o.b., is given his due as being good with cattle but clueless about people.  Excellent writing, excellent story. Read it and see for yourself.

Blue Willow at

Doris Gates was well acquainted with the lives of migrant workers. Born in Mountain View, California in 1901, she was the daughter of a physician who made frequent house calls to the surrounding rural population.  The family later owned a prune ranch where Gates had direct contact with migrant workers and their lifestyles.

A California resident for most of her life, Gates worked as the director of library work with children for the Fresno Free County Library fro 1930 - 1940.  A reduction in her hours gave her the opportunity to pursue her writing, and her first book, Sarah's Idea, was published in 1938, followed by Blue Willow in 1940.  All in all, Gates published over twenty-five books, including several textbooks and a number of books on Greek mythology. She died in 1987 in Carmel, California.

Here is where I wish I had my notes.  Somewhere in them is a paragraph taken from an interview with Gates about her childhood, the instance that she realized that there would be many, many things that she couldn't do because she was a girl, things that only men could do.

This did not sit well with Gates, as a child or an adult, and something of that frustration is evident in a paragraph in Blue Willow.  Mr. Anderson, the ranch owner, had just offered Mr. Larkin Bounce's old job. Seventy-five dollars a month, a house, and all the eggs and milk they could use.  Mr. Larkin said nothing, and Mr. Anderson repeated the offer.  Still silent, Mr. Larkin, still dazed,  held out his hand, and Janey, watching, wanted to scream out, to yell, to make sure Mr. Anderson understood that her father did want to job, but she didn't, and Gates wrote the following:

But Janey had learned during her strange life that there are times when only men are important, when even grown-up women didn't matter at all. And certainly not little girls. This was distinctly one of those times.


Doris Gates papers at the University of Oregon.

Brief biography of Doris Gates.


  1. Just the other day, I was moved to write about another Newbery runner-up about a sharecropper child who finds a home at a ranch, THE LONER by Ester Wier (1963). I found that book even better, and also unflinching, but liked BLUE WILLOW a whole lot back when I'd bought and read it ca. 1974. Notable that today's Mountain View is a haven for the only mildly wealthy Silicon Valley folks, and how women's estate has improved...though that of the poor and of children, not as much...

  2. There are certain books that make an imprint on you- you never forget them- I believe back in the late 50's ( yes, I'm old) I read Blue Willow and Eleanor Estes "The Hundred Dresses" back to back- all these years later, they have left an indelible impression- thank you for paying tribute to this brilliant piece of writing, that captured so poignantly the migrant experience, and did what good fiction is supposed to do- open up another world , let people empathize- in the early seventies, I was thrust into a situation working with migrant children who were not welcome in the community where I was teaching and where they were to be schooled- Blue Willow was up front and center as I tried to confront things. Thank you for your review.