The back of the picture book New Shoes shows a girl’s stockinged feet while she stands on a strip of brown paper. An adult, no-nonsense finger seems to pin the foot in place by its extension over the top of the girl’s white sock. With her other hand, the adult, who we’ll find in the story is the girl’s mom, outlines her daughter’s foot on the brown paper with a yellow pencil. The book’s endpapers are a reprise of this action of the mother and daughter: loose piles of brown paper with outlines of feet. The mother and daughter are black and author Susan Lynn Meyer is depicting Jim Crow in action in small-town 1950’s America. Eric Velasquez’s detailed portraits capture both the decade and, through gesture, the characters’ emotional worlds. The mother is tracing the girl’s feet in a shoe shop because “coloreds” aren’t allowed to try on the shoes. All they have are the tracings to find a pair that fits.
New Shoes offers children an ordinary experience that most have had, the simple act of trying on shoes, and how withholding that act can be used as a weapon against a people. Meyer and Velasquez offer a story to imagine how racism works, through small intimate acts in daily exchanges. The mother accepts the shame; but in this decade in U.S. race history, her daughter Ella Mae is embarrassed and can’t leave the injustice behind. In her Author’s Note, Meyer helps readers understand America under Jim Crow and the many laws about daily interaction that supported the practice of segregation. She also describes people who began to fight back, rejected injustice, and took steps that led to the beginnings of the civil rights movement.
Ella Mae and her cousin Charlotte imagine another way to run a business than the way their town’s shoe store is run, and are among those who fight back. Ella Mae and Charlotte begin to take any odd job they can get, even if the pay is small. They advertise their willing hands. The say, “We’ll work for a nickel and a pair of outgrown shoes.” And you can imagine what they are going to do with their growing stock of shoes. Meyer and Velasquez capture that beautiful age just before adolescence and give us Ella Mae and Charlotte in their bloom when all is possible in a decade in history on the edge of change.