Pecan Pie Baby is the eighth picture book by Jacqueline Woodson, two time Newbery winning author of feathers and After Tupac and D Foster, and Show Way illustrated by Hudson Talbott. In a year when we were bestowed with the marvelous There's Going to Be a Baby written by John Burningham and illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, what I consider to be the best picture book addressing the imminent arrival of a sibling to be published since Kevin Henkes' Julius, Baby of the World was published in 1995, I am thrilled to find that there is a yet another book that joins this underpopulated category! Published in October of 2010, Pecan Pie Baby made it onto so many "best of" lists that came out recently that I had to read it. And, of course, this book is illustrated by one of my all-time favorite illustrators, Sophie Blackall, who illustrated the superb Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Kahn, in 2010 as well.
I was almost four when my brother was born and my daughter was almost five when my son was born. My kids were 11 and 7 when number three joined our family, so I am very sensitive to and interested picture books where the soon-to-be-big sister/brother is old enough to understand the changes that a baby will make to her/his life. And I guess this biases my list of what I think makes a book about a new baby superior. However, I realize that it is more common to have children two years apart in age or less these days. A two or even a three year old probably will not grasp the subtle complexities that authors like Henkes and Woodson address in their books, although Burningham and Oxenbury's book with it's playful imaginings and straightforward text is a great choice for the toddler crowd. That said, I think that these books are still worth reading to your first borns when they are old enough to appreciate them, regardless of the age of the "new" baby. These books all address the changing world of the first born, which does not stop changing after that new baby is born. Pecan Pie Baby is especially sweet and well suited to this scenario.
When we first meet Gia and her mother, she is trying on clothes and seeing what still fits. Instead of giving away the too-small clothes, Mama reminds her that they should save them. I have to admit, I expected Gia to be excited by the thought that her little sister might one day wear her clothes, but the story progresses and builds to an outburst in which Gia lets us know how she feels about that "ding-dang" baby, a phrase she utters throughout the book, always printed in a special font. When Gia let that exclamation rip, I knew I was going to love her and this book for saying it like it is. Woodson continues the story of the preparations for the baby and, while Gia is never ignored or pushed aside in the excitement, she is very aware that that baby is taking up a lot of time and attention. She says, "Some days I sat on my stoop thinking about all those years it had just been me and Mama." Even though the baby is not physically part of her world yet, Gia is already feeling how this baby is pushing her way into their lives, forcing two to make room for three. Gia and her Mama still do everything together like they always did, even eating pecan pie, which that baby sure loves, they are just doing different things.
In school, Gia is embarrassed and frustrated when the teacher reads a book about a a new baby joining a family and all the kids turn to look at her. She may want attention, but not because of that baby. Attention turns to Mama because of the baby as well, but she seems happy to take it on. Aunts want to talk of nothing but the baby, Uncles come over to help build the crib and Grandma wants to make sure Mama is eating her greens. Things come to a head one night at a family dinner when, as usual, all talk is about the baby. Gia explodes, yelling, "I'm so sick of that ding-dang baby!" and is sent to her room. Woodson is wonderful at capturing the emotions of a child and putting them into words. Curled up on her bed in her room, the baby's crib peeking out of one corner of the room, Gia says, "Upstairs, I got that teary, choky feeling. And even though there were a lot of people in my house, I felt real, real alone."
After a time, Mama comes upstairs to talk to Gia. They talk about the time they have had together and how special it has been, Gia saying to Mama, "I know what I'm going to miss the most, my whole, whole life before... the..." and Mama answers, "ding-dang baby." Then Mama surprises Gia and says she's going to miss that too. She smiles and says, "Guess you are going to have to tell the baby all about it."
This is such a beautiful ending to the book. The acknowledgment that Mama loved her time alone with Gia, which is going to end, and the wonderful looking forward when she tells Gia that she can tell the new baby about these times past. The raw facts of childhood are that it's often not easy to share and sometimes hard to include someone new into your orbit when you have only known the feeling of being the center of the universe. Woodson does a brilliant job simplifying and giving voice to these feelings that we sometimes overlook or override in an effort to keep everyone in the family moving forward. The book ends with Gia and Mama going back downstairs for one more piece of pecan pie, something that mother, daughter and new baby all love.
*** As an interesting aside, in her Golden Fuse Awards for 2010, Betsy Bird notes under her Tit for Tat category, "I may be wrong, but I believe that Mo Willems' daughter Trixie is in Pecan Pie Baby by Jacqueline Woodson, just as Jacqueline's daughter was in Knuffle Bunny 2." I'm not sure if Woodson's daughter is named Sonya, but there is definitely a Trixie in Gia's class in Pecan Pie Baby. How cool to have your parent and his/her friend memorialize you and your buddy in picture books!