The Wel­come Chair

Rose­mary Wells, Jer­ry Pinkney (Illus­tra­tor)

  • Review
By – February 25, 2022

This col­lab­o­ra­tion between icon­ic author Rose­mary Wells and illus­tra­tor Jer­ry Pinkney is as wel­come as the chair of the title, although the recent loss of Pinkney is a sad con­text for its pub­li­ca­tion. Wells and Pinkney have cre­at­ed a deeply thought­ful cel­e­bra­tion of immi­grants and the wel­come that our coun­try, at its best, has offered them. Part­ly based on the author’s own family’s his­to­ry, this is the sto­ry of a sim­ple, but beau­ti­ful­ly carved, chair that pass­es from one fam­i­ly to anoth­er across nation­al bound­aries. The chair pro­vides com­fort to all its recip­i­ents equal­ly but also acquires the par­tic­u­lar mark of dif­fer­ent cul­tures through dif­fer­ent words mean­ing wel­come.”

The book begins with Wells’s great-great-grand­fa­ther, Sam Seig­bert, a nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Ger­man Jew who is gift­ed in carv­ing wood but less inclined to study Torah, as his father would pre­fer. Unlike all the oth­er immi­grants in the book, Sam’s choice to leave his native coun­try is attrib­uted to his per­son­al sit­u­a­tion, not to per­se­cu­tion or pover­ty. (Wells even spec­i­fies in her infor­ma­tive author’s note that Sam’s moti­va­tion to leave Bavaria was to escape reli­gious con­for­mi­ty.”) Yet, in the text, she reports how Sam chose to cut off his side­locks” (payess) in order to avoid the bul­ly­ing inflict­ed on him as a Jew. This is the ori­gin of the wel­come chair; when Sam arrives in Amer­i­ca, he appren­tices as a car­pen­ter, and cre­ates a cher­ry­wood rock­er engraved with the Ger­man word for wel­come.”

The chair is a tan­gi­ble object but also a totem, first find­ing its way with­in Sam’s fam­i­ly, where a Hebrew engrav­ing for wel­come” greets the birth of a son. But Wells also empha­sizes the uni­ver­sal­i­ty of the chair’s mes­sage, as its con­cept embraces peo­ple from Ire­land, the Domini­can Repub­lic, Haiti, and Syr­ia. These refugees are not gener­ic sym­bols; numer­ous small details give their sto­ries depth, from a seam­stress who mar­ries a door­man at the Plaza Hotel to a young girl receiv­ing the gen­er­ous gift of an Amer­i­can Girl doll. Wells skill­ful­ly weaves his­tor­i­cal events and loca­tions into her nar­ra­tive about the chair cre­at­ed by one immi­grant arti­san in his new home.

Pinkney’s art­work glows with col­or and care­ful­ly deployed lines, all suf­fused with his sig­na­ture sen­si­tiv­i­ty. For­tu­nate­ly, his illustrator’s note informs read­ers about his meth­ods and media. Exten­sive research helped him to accu­rate­ly por­tray dif­fer­ent times and places. Using col­or pen­cils, pas­tels, and water­col­ors, each scene rep­re­sents a life­like and expres­sive inter­ac­tion with his­to­ry. When Sam falls in love with Ruth, whose club­foot would have made mar­riage back in the old coun­try vir­tu­al­ly impos­si­ble, he engi­neers a spe­cial wool-lined boot for her with wheels to enable mobil­i­ty. Pinkney depicts Sam lov­ing­ly fit­ting it on her, allud­ing to the tale of Cin­derel­la with a real­is­tic set­ting. Sam’s carv­ing tools and stray wood shav­ings sit on a shelf in light col­ors, while Ruth’s bright blue dress and Sam’s red ban­dan­na are the first ele­ments to meet the reader’s eye.

There are many con­tem­po­rary children’s books about the strug­gles and tri­umphs of immi­grants. This one, a high­ly rec­om­mend­ed book by two of the most dis­tin­guished tal­ents in their fields, brings a real sense of warmth and respect to the Amer­i­can tale of wel­com­ing strangers. Their col­lab­o­ra­tion offers young read­ers new insights into his­to­ry and unmatched visu­al beauty.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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