The Welcome Chair by Rosemary Wells, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. A Paula Wiseman Book, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2021. 9781534429772
Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 5
Format: Hardcover picture book
Genre: Historical fiction
What did you like about the book? The history of the American immigrant experience of the last two centuries is lovingly and thoughtfully traced in this beautiful book, based in part on a true story from the author’s family. In the 1820s, Rosemary Wells’ great-great-grandfather, Sam, came to New York from Germany looking for work as a woodworker, and built a rocking chair for his new employer’s expectant wife. He carved the word ‘Willkommen’ into it to welcome the little boy, thus beginning a tradition of adding the word ‘welcome’ in several different languages. The chair stayed in Wells’ family until her grandmother gave it as a wedding gift to her seamstress (after attaching a plaque reading Fáilte), and at this point the family legend transitions to a work of pure fiction. In the 1950s, a pair of nuns from the Dominican Republic buy the chair from a Salvation Army store and scratch Bienvenido into the wood. It stays with them until they pass away in 2010 and it is salvaged once again, this time by a family who soon welcomes an infant survivor of the Haitian earthquake. That family then gifts the chair to a refugee family arriving from Syria in 2016, after learning how to write ‘welcome’ in Arabic.
Rosemary Wells’ gentle, descriptive storytelling and Jerry Pinkney’s trademark watercolor art work in perfect harmony to share this saga. Wells expresses her support of immigrants in no uncertain terms in the preface and author’s note; she applies more of a light hand throughout the narrative while still making her opinions clear. Readers will gain an understanding of why various immigrants and refugees have sought to come to America for so long and learn about the historical precedent, and will certainly empathize with many of the individual family stories depicted. Pinkney sets each story in context with such attention to detail, while still making the Welcome Chair the focal point in every illustration. Creators’ notes give background on Wells’ inspirations for the story, and insight into Pinkney’s artistic process.
Anything you did not like about the book? Other than knowing that it is one of the last books we will see from Jerry Pinkney, no.
To whom would you recommend this book? 3rd and 4th grade readers who enjoy the autobiographical work of Patricia Polacco or historical fiction by authors like Deborah Hopkinson; it would also be valuable in the classroom during social studies units on immigration.
Who should buy this book? Public and elementary school libraries
Where would you shelve it? Picture books, or perhaps oversized fiction
Should we (librarians) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? No
Reviewer’s Name, Library (or school), City: Leigh Russell King, Lincoln Street School, Northborough, Massachusetts.
Date of review: December 14, 2021