Author and illustrator: Lois Lenski
Genre: Children’s Literature
What’s it about? Realistic fiction about young Joanda Hutley and her sharecropper family, cotton pickers in Arkansas during the late 1940s. The Hutleys endure many ups and downs and live from payday to payday, often squandering their money in town every Saturday, and leaving little for groceries and coal to heat their house. Tractor accidents, illness, stolen cotton and other problems keep the Hutleys locked in place, until Uncle Shine Morse shows them how they must pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.
Despite their hardships, Joanda and her family work together and are a cheerful and loving group, which makes it a remarkably charming story. Neighbors look out for each other and even the boss man’s wife turns out to be nice, making the story both a dose of reality and an example of the goodness in people.
Lenski is both the author and the illustrator of Cotton in My Sack and her unique illustrations show the family during the good and the bad, adding much to the story’s realism.
Closing comment: Cotton in My Sack is one of my favorite girlhood books. Reading it again makes me understand how my reading tastes have developed, as I have always loved stories about large families and their struggles. It reminds me now of a combination of the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder and also a little bit of The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. I like how the author doesn’t gloss over the hard times but also shows the family’s resilience and optimism.
Lois Lenski wrote and illustrated many regional children’s books, and she won a Newbery Medal in 1946 for Strawberry Girl. She wrote Cotton in My Sack at the request of children in Arkansas, who had read, Strawberry Girl and wanted her to write a book about them.
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