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Vera B. Williams, at 88; created children’s books with gritty realism, bold colors

NEW YORK — Vera B. Williams, a writer and illustrator for young people whose picture books centered on the lives of working-class families, a highly unusual subject when she began her work in the 1970s, died Friday at her home in Narrowsburg, N.Y.. She was 88.

Her death was announced by her publisher, HarperCollins.

Ms. Williams, who did not start her career until she was in her late 40s, used picture books to express her lifelong interest in social justice issues. Her young protagonists are ethnically diverse, typically urban, often immigrants and rarely well-heeled; fathers may be absent.

Her inspiration, Ms. Williams said in interviews, came from her own background as the daughter of an immigrant family struggling to stay afloat in the Depression.


Her texts emphasize the joie de vivre of ordinary activities — flying a kite, making music, eating a meal — especially when carried out amid the comforting confines of a community. Her illustrations, known for bold colors and a style reminiscent of folk art, were praised by reviewers for their great tenderness and crackling vitality.

Her best-known picture book, “A Chair for My Mother” (1982), stars Rosa, a Hispanic girl living in the United States. After the family loses its possessions in a house fire, Rosa saves money to buy her mother a comfortable chair in which she can relax after her shift waiting tables.

For its illustrations, “A Chair for My Mother” was named a Caldecott Honor Book, as the runners-up for the Caldecott Medal, presented annually by the American Library Association, are designated.

The daughter of Albert Baker and the former Rebecca Porringer, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Vera Baker was born in Los Angeles. When she was a child, her father disappeared for a considerable period; as an adult, Ms. Williams surmised that he had been in prison, although she never learned the details.


She recapitulated that experience in a picture book, “Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart” (2001), about two resourceful sisters who mark time until their incarcerated father comes home.

During the Depression, the Bakers lost their home; Vera and her sister, Naomi, were sent for about a year to a home for Jewish children. After the girls and their father rejoined the family, they moved to the Bronx. Ms. Williams earned a bachelor’s degree in graphic arts from Black Mountain College in North Carolina.

In the 1970s, after her marriage to a Black Mountain classmate, Paul Williams, ended in divorce, Ms. Williams moved to a houseboat in Vancouver. There she began to illustrate children’s books.