Pecan Pie Baby: A Sweet Children’s Book Celebrating Diversity, Single-Motherhood, and the Vitalizing Gift of Community
By Maria Popova
Half a century ago, Margaret Mead memorably asserted that exposing young children to people who differ from them is essential for teaching them to like or dislike others on the basis of personal character rather than because they belong to a category of people — in other words, for immunizing them against the poison of bigotry. And yet today, only 31 percent of children’s books feature female protagonists (even Jane Austen once told her niece that, in literature, “one does not care for girls until they are grown up”) and a gobsmacking 0.3 percent include characters of color.
How refreshing, then, to come upon Pecan Pie Baby (public library) by writer Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by the always excellent Sophie Blackall — the story of a little girl named Gia and her journey of coming to terms with the disorienting fact that she will soon be a big sister.
The story, told through Gia’s perspective, begins after she has found out that a baby is on the way — how parents tell kids about where babies come from is something Blackall addresses in another illustrated gem, one of the year’s best children’s books — and is already fed up with “talk about the ding-dang baby.” Mama tries to warm her up to this alien newcomer by telling Gia that the baby is constantly craving pecan pie — one of Gia’s own favorite things. But even that peeves little Gia, who scoffs that the baby “is just being a copycat.”
At school, all of her classmates want to know about the baby — “You want a boy or a girl?” — and even come up with a jumping game called “Mama’s Having a Baby.”
When her friend Micaela comes over for one of their regular sleepovers, Gia worries about what will happen to Micaela’s guest bed once the baby arrives.
Man! I was thinking, That ding-dang baby’s going to try to take the place of my sleepover friend.
Even her aunties, when they come over for their weekly Sweet Tea and Toast Party, are “baby-crazy.”
One Saturday, the delivery man brings a giant box and Gia’s uncles set out to put together the baby’s crib as she sits dejected in the corner.
One night, Grandma took us out to a fancy restaurant. She kept fussing over Mama…
“Are you getting enough rest?” Grandma asked. “You know I can take Gia. The baby needs you now.”
I wanted to say, I need Mama now.
Then Mama reached over and rubbed my back. “Me and the baby need Gia with us.”
And even though I didn’t like it when Mama talked about the ding-dang baby, her hand felt nice on my back and I was glad that she needed me.
Even so, Gia continues to reminisce wistfully about the days when she had Mama all to herself.
Now, that baby was going to change everything!
Eventually, at the Thanksgiving dinner table — for aren’t the holidays when family affairs always reach their breaking points? — Gia loses her temper and lets all her vexation loose, screaming at the top of her lungs: “I am so sick of that DING-DANG BABY!”
She is sent to her room, where she sits on her bed with “that teary, choky feeling.”
Even though there were a whole lot of people in my house, I felt real, real, real alone.
When Mama comes upstairs later, they have an assuring talk over a slice of pecan pie. While Gia still fears the loss of “the good old days,” she finds comfort in knowing that she and and she alone will have the privilege to tell “the ding-dang baby” about all those memories.
But perhaps the most emboldening part of the story is the one left unsaid, only subtly implied — Gia’s mom is a single mother, a woman at once independent and with strong ties to her community. There is no father figure anywhere in sight — not even in Gia’s imaginings, suggesting that she doesn’t even have a reference point for fatherhood. Instead, it is Gia’s “uncles” who assemble the baby’s crib, and her “aunties” who come over for the weekly Tea and Toast party, and a diverse mix of family friends who sit around the Thanksgiving table, and Grandma who takes Gia and Mama out to a fancy dinner. They all come in as a collective co-parent — a touching testament to the vitalizing power of community, so very important in our turbulent times and our age of self-inflicted exile into individualism.
Pecan Pie Baby is sweet and wonderful in its entirety, a delightful duet of words and pictures. Complement it with Andrea Beaty’s Happy Birthday, Madame Chapeau, the story of a little girl who comes from a very different social stratum but confronts a similar journey of overcoming lonesomeness, then revisit Blackall’s The Baby Tree, one of the year’s best children’s books.
Published December 16, 2014