Trinka Hakes Noble once described the joy of being a children’s writer: she can relive her childhood. And not just the fun times, but the difficult ones, too. And why would that be a good thing? As an author, she has the opportunity to rewrite her own history—to take an unfortunate situation from her past and finally make it right.
She does just that in the poignant story The Orange Shoes.
Ms. Noble grew up in rural Michigan as the fifth of seven children. The hand-me-downs that defined her childhood became the inspiration for this tale.
Each child in her family received just one sturdy pair of shoes per year, and since they were to be passed down between boys and girls, they were plain loafers. At school she was teased for her boyish Buster Browns. One afternoon while browsing the sole department store in town, she set her eyes upon a pair of lovely orange Mary Janes and instantly fell in love. She does not know how they afforded it, but the next day her parents presented her with that special pair of shoes.
As a young innocent, she showed them off to the children at school so they would finally admire and compliment her shoes. Instead, the children kicked dirt on her shoes, stomped on her feet and destroyed them, leaving her heartbroken.
In The Orange Shoes, marvelously illustrated by Doris Ettlinger, the main character Delly comes from a poor, rural family who cannot afford shoes until October, when the weather demands them. And yet, Delly’s character does not feel sorry for herself without shoes. Instead, she relishes the feel of the cool earth beneath her bare feet.
Like Ms. Noble, Delly is a talented artist. The inside of unfolded, used envelopes are her canvases. Her teacher, Miss Violet, encourages her students to decorate boxes for a “Shoebox Social” which will raise money for art supplies. When Delly sees a pair of orange Mary Janes in town, she immediately wants them to wear to her school’s social, but she knows they will never be hers.
To Delly’s surprise, her father buys the shoes she so admires. The delighted young girl wears her shoes to school and her jealous classmates ruin them.
This is where Ms. Noble fixes the situation from her childhood. Delly becomes a resourceful artist, painting each crack and crease with vines, transforming bigger scuffs into flowers. She decorates her Shoebox Social box to match perfectly. At the event, her box draws the highest bid, but it comes from an unexpected source.
The Orange Shoes was easily my favorite picture book of 2007 and it deserves a place on your shelf. The illustrations and story marry beautifully, and the message is uplifting and powerful. This being said, it is a more complex tale meant for older children, making it a great snuggle-up-together tale which elicits discussion between parent and child. And those are some of my favorite moments with my kids, when we can talk about books that we love.