On the literal level, Blue Willow is the satisfying story of a young girl obtaining her heart’s desire. If the novel is reviewed with a probing eye and a literary background, however, shades of T. S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald appear. Blue Willow is John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) written for children. Doris Gates has set her characters in a modern wasteland, but unlike the other authors, who were writing for adults, the Larkin family is allowed to escape.
Gates carefully uses four main settings to move the family symbolically from security to despair and back to hope. While their Texas home is only sketchily portrayed, in Janey’s memories it represents stability and all that is good. As seen at the county fair and camp school, Janey loves books and reading, which she attributes to her experiences with books on the Texas ranch. The second setting, the dust bowl locale of their shack in California where the story starts, reflects their poverty. A reprieve from this precarious state is offered by the third location, the river, which Mrs. Larkin describes as the biblical phrase “rivers of water in a dry place.” During their day at the river, Janey wanders into the final setting, the Anderson Ranch, which parallels the dream world of the willow plate. This setting foreshadows the possibility of a change for the family. Yet, as in the stories of King Arthur and the fairy tales that Janey loves, they must overcome an evil opponent in the guise of Bounce Reyburn. The blue willow plate is the catalyst that brings...
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Based on visits to migrant schools while Doris Gates was director of the children’s department at the Fresno County Public Library, Blue Willow is often cited as one of the first books to bring contemporary social issues into children’s literature. It was named an American Library Association Notable Book in 1940 and a Newbery Honor Book in 1941.
Gates is best known for Blue Willow, but she wrote other pieces of realistic fiction drawing upon events in her own life. Her first book, Sarah’s Idea (1938), features Jinny, the burro that she rode to school as a child. Her love of horses is exemplified in Little Vic (1951). Notable for its African American main character in the era before the Civil Rights movement, this rags-to-riches story was the basis of a television film in 1977. Elderberry Bush (1967) is an autobiographical novel of her childhood. Gates published more than twenty books for children, including six volumes of Greek myths. Some of her stories were written especially for basal reading textbooks. As a result of this literary legacy, Gates is often labeled a notable author in textbooks on children’s literature.
Many of Gates’s books are out of print, and her content and style may seem simplistic when compared to more recent, realistic fiction. Her attitude toward feminine roles in society may prompt criticism, but there is a lasting quality in her very traditionalism. Like all good storytellers, Gates had a desire to delight children with a well-told tale. In that goal, she amply succeeded with Blue Willow, which is still read in some classrooms and is available in most school and public libraries.