This is a story set in the 1950’s, prior to the 1964 passage of the Civil Rights Act making it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, or national origin.
Ella Mae is a little girl who loves to look in the windows at Johnson’s Shoes, but her family can’t afford new shoes for her, so she gets hand-me-downs from her cousin Charlotte. But when Charlotte’s shoes become too small, Mama decides they will just have to buy Ella Mae something new.
At Johnson’s, Ella Mae and her mom have to wait for a little blonde girl to be waited on first, even though she walked in after they did. Then they learn that although the other little girl can try on shoes, Ella Mae is not allowed. She has to trace her feet on paper, and they must buy whatever shoes the man decides match the picture.
The next day, while talking about what happened, Ella Mae and Charlotte get an idea. They do chores and errands around the neighborhood in exchange for outgrown shoes. Then they polish them and set them up on empty shelves in the barn.
They put up a sign: “Ella Mae and Charlotte’s Shoes: Price 10 cents and another used pair.” The neighbors come, and of course they are allowed to try on the shoes. “In our store,” Ella Mae says, “anyone who walks in the door can try on all the shoes they want.”
An author’s note at the end explains how Jim Crow segregation worked in the United States before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s. But, she says, “as Ella Mae and Charlotte do, African Americans found ways of fighting back against the unfair system.”
Illustrator Eric Velasquez uses soft earth tones in his beautiful oil paintings to convey a sense of a previous era, but gives the girls bright pastel dresses to make them stand out.
Evaluation: There are messages and history lessons both subtle and overt in this gorgeous picture book.
Published by Holiday House, 2015