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Ethel Footman Smothers Biography (1944-) - Sidelights

review times hard jar

In her stories, author Ethel Footman Smothers chronicles some of the lives of African Americans who lived when Smothers was a child in the 1950s. Her first two novels, Down in the Piney Woods and its sequel Moriah's Pond, are about Annie Rye, the ten-year-old daughter of a sharecropper in rural Georgia. During the course of the first novel, Annie must confront not only the racism of a neighboring white sharecropper, but her own feelings of resentment and hostility when her three older half-sisters move in with her family. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly stated, "This zesty first novel is chock-a-block with fresh, authentic language," and Hazel Rochman, writing in Booklist, added, "The pleasure is in the rhythm of the narrative voice, in the sense of place, and in the characters."

After Moriah's Pond, Smothers turned to picture books. "I've always loved picture books," Smothers told Grand Rapids Press reviewer Ann Byle. "I fell in love with the illustrations when I would take my own children to the library." Her first book for younger children, Auntee Edna, is about a girl who dreads being forced to visit her elderly aunt but ends up enjoying the old-fashioned activities that the two share, including spinning button toys, baking, and using strips of paper bags to curl their hair. It is "a fresh tribute to the beneficial bonding of young and old," declared School Library Journal's Jody McCoy.

The Hard-Times Jar is the largely autobiographical tale of a story-loving girl from a poor family of migrant workers who longs for a book to call her own. Eight-year-old Emma Jean Turner is sent to school in Pennsylvania one fall while her parents pick apples. She is scared by the prospect of going to an otherwise all-white school but enthralled by the school's library full of "real" books. Until now, Emma has only had makeshift books that she created herself by writing stories on paper bags and holding them together with safety pins. Although she knows that it is wrong, Emma cannot help taking some of the library books home with her one weekend. Her mother forces her to return the books and apologize, yet she also gives Emma some coins out of the family's hard-times jar to buy a book of her own. "The story provides a convincing portrayal of Emma's firm grounding within a loving family," Carolyn Phelan wrote in Booklist. Describing the story as "inspirational," School Library Journal critic Susan Pine thought The Hard-Times Jar's "text flows smoothly, and it clearly describes Emma's enthusiasm and fears."

Smothers once told SATA: "Down in the Piney Woods is drawn from childhood memories and imagination. And when I decided to tell my story, I felt that Piney Woods rhythm in my head, with the black English and short, choppy sentences. That's the language of my childhood, and of my people. That uniqueness—that real flavor of our ancestry—must be preserved, or our children—all children—will be deprived of a rare richness that never can be recaptured. You see, it's not just black history. It's American history."

Biographical and Critical Sources

PERIODICALS

Booklist, December 15, 1991, Hazel Rochman, review of Down in the Piney Woods; January 15, 1995, Hazel Rochman, review of Moriah's Pond, p. 930; August, 2003, Carolyn Phelan, review of The Hard-Times Jar, p. 1995.

Grand Rapids Press (Grand Rapids, MI), April 5, 2001, Morgan Jarema, "Local Author Helps Young Writers Brainstorm," p. 2; July 1, 2001, Ann Byle, "'Stale' Visit with Old Aunt Becomes Rare Treat for Young Girl," p. J6; August 12, 2003, Ann Byle, "Smother's Book Teaches about Family, Hard Times," p. B4.

Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 2003, review of The Hard-Times Jar, p. 915.

Publishers Weekly, November 29, 1991, review of Down in the Piney Woods, pp. 52-53; January 23, 1995, review of Moriah's Pond, pp. 70-71; July 28, 2003, review of The Hard-Times Jar, p. 94.

Roanoke Times (Roanoke, VA), August 12, 2001, Mary Ann Johnson, review of Auntee Edna, p. 6.

School Library Journal, January, 1992, Katherine Bruner, review of Down in the Piney Woods, p. 116; February, 1995, Ellen Fader, review of Moriah's Pond, p. 100; August, 2001, Jody McCoy, review of Auntee Edna, p. 162; October, 2003, Susan Pine, review of The Hard-Times Jar, p. 138.

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