I think we’re all tired of hearing that it’s been a difficult, weird, hard, strange, unprecedented [insert over-used adjective here] year. Even more so, we’re all tired of living it. While I continue to prep posts about new and newish books (I have so many!); I also love the classics, vintage, obscure older books that speak to timeless issues. They can be so comforting, surprising, and reminders of days past – a reminder that we’ll get through this too.
Today I wanted to drop in with a book I’ve thought about often over this year. I collected it years ago as it is one of my favorite children’s book illustrators ever. I am incredibly drawn to her style and choices and lines – but I’m getting ahead of myself. Join me in this lovely, difficult, emotional, and yet so perfectly childlike book about rough economic times in a city family. Check out Tight Times by Barbara Shook Hazen, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, 1979.
The story opens in the morning with a child asking their mom if they can have a dog. It’s obviously a familiar question because the mom is quick and short with her answer. She’s busy. So off the child goes to ask Daddy.
Daddy is also busy, but gives a reason why not: “Because of tight times.”
They grab breakfast together and the dad explains with examples about the cheaper cereal they are eating and the lack of summer vacation they took last year and having lima beans instead of roast on Sundays and the babysitter coming after school while Mommy works extra.
The child doesn’t like any of those changes and would rather have a dog.
Then that afternoon, something funny happens – Daddy came home early and dismissed the babysitter. He lost his job. Mommy comes home soon after and sends the child to the stoop with a candy bar – something that never happens! While he is out there, a crying sound comes from a trash can and with the help of a kind passerby, a cat is pulled out. It’s a scrawny cat who doesn’t want any of the offered candy bar. The lady suggests the child keep the cat and feed it some milk. The response is enthusiastic and the child and cat race inside.
Despite attempts to be quiet, the milk is spilled and the dad and mom come rushing to the kitchen. They are surprised, get an explanation and then “something sort of scary happened.” The dad starts to cry and then the mom joins. The child is shocked. They pull into a group hug and the child starts crying too.
But just as soon as it began, the dad lightens the mood and says he can keep the cat, but not to ever mention wanting a dog again. The child agrees and names the cat and hopes it likes lima beans.
Such a different and powerful book. It is so raw. The layers of details and nuance in the story are just perfection. As usual, I get lost in poring over all the details Schart Hyman pencils into the illustrations. Hers is a style that I truly adore and marvel over. In this book, you get the full 70s vibe – clothes, decor, hair – it’s all fantastic.
You also get city details that will always have a soft spot from me now – the radiator, the tiny spaces, the clutter, the crosswalks, trash cans, and dog walkers.
One of the many things that I love about it and that also makes it an unusual picture book find nowadays is all the details that you won’t see in current picture books – like the opening spread with the mom in a bra. This book is so deep and intimate about normal life. I’m not even sure you see this level of emotion from adults in picture books. The story is heavy and scary, and yet all the emphasis on the child’s observations and responses keep the tone light and age appropriate. As an adult reader, I feel the weight of the parents and read between the lines and page turns of the situation; but I can assume from the child perspective, the thoughts and actions are just right, just heavy-enough for a child to grasp and handle.
I love the balance of the emotion and the struggle with the child’s light-hearted personal moments. While the main push of current picture books is to always have the child solve their own problems and save themselves; there is a much-needed layer in this 70s book where a child needs to be a child and feel joy at the small things and feel safe and secure by the grown-ups. Kids can grasp the hard stuff to some extent, but I also love the feeling that they shouldn’t have to bear the weight of it.
It’s a beautiful book with the perfect amount of humor in the background details, and the little one-liners from the child. And even the clever ending that makes the whole emphasis on that silly cat. It’s a lovely package of a story, useful at any time I think to talk about family issues, life issues, emotions, and hard times at any point in life.
When life gives you lemons, or lima beans… maybe your new cat will like them?