When I began writing for children, I searched for mentors. A kind children’s book author agreed to meet me in a local library and pass along pearls of wisdom. Her first tip: Start by reading. “Get to know the award winners,” she said and handed me a pamphlet of titles that won Newbery and Coretta Scott King awards and honors.
I have a long way to go in meeting her challenge. But in the process, I’ve discovered books that made me laugh, weep and marvel at the power of words. My most recent read was the 1976 Newbery Honor Book, The Hundred Penny Box by Sharon Bell Mathis and illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. It’s an unforgettable work. As I celebrate the new class of award-winning black children’s book authors, I salute too geniuses like Mathis who blazed the trail.
In The Hundred Penny Box, Mathis expertly weaves the story of a young nephew and his 100-year-old great-great Aunt Dewbet Thomas. She’s come to live with him and his parents, bringing with her a worn wooden box that holds more than the hundred pennies — one for each year of her age — tucked inside a cloth, rose-printed sack, but the heart of her life.
In her quest to help Aunt Dew adjust to being at their home and focus on the future, Michael’s mom has thrown many of the elder woman’s old things away. But when his mom turns her sights on the hundred-penny box, Michael speaks out. He desperately searches for a way to preserve his aunt’s cherished box — and her.
“When I lose my hundred penny box, I lose me,” Aunt Dew tells him . . . “Them’s my years in that box,” she says. “That’s me in that box.”
The beauty of the book is its simplicity. It’s a short story yet lush with emotion, detail and meaning. The characters linger long after you finish reading. So do their words.
Cheers to Sharon Bell Mathis for creating a story that still entrances decades after its debut.