This book, set in the Great Depression, was a Newbery Honor book in 1941, back when the Newbery Award signified that a book was really good rather than just “relevant.” Today, it seems like historical fiction to us, but when it was published it would have been considered contemporary fiction. I call books like this “period fiction,” fiction written during what is now a historical period that accurately portrays life in that period for later generations.
Ten-year-old Janey Larkin has traveled around with her father and step-mother so that the father could find work ever since he lost their farm in Texas. She cannot remember living more than one year in the same place. However, when the Larkins settle in a shack in the San Joaquin Valley of California, it really feels like home because she makes friends with Lupe who lives across the road, she likes her teacher at the cotton camp school where her father works, and most of all she finds a home nearby that looks almost exactly like the house on the blue willow plate that is the only possession she has from her deceased mother. Yet, when her step-mother becomes ill and the Larkins have no rent money, Janey decides to pay the rent with her blue willow plate. It seems like the end of the world, but it actually is the beginning of something wonderful.
There are many commendable qualities in this book. Janey’s family reads the Bible regularly, and Janey has learned not to worry about tomorrow. She resists the temptation to steal something when she has an opportunity while visiting the county fair. The portrayal of friendship between Janey and Lupe and of the loving relationship of the Larkin family are both wonderful. Most importantly, Janey’s willingness to sacrifice her prized possession for the good of her family is highly commendable. Perhaps this book would best appeal to girls, but I think that it is good reading for all young people.