Amazing Grace, by Mary Hoffman

“Grace loves stories, whether they’re from books, movies, or the kind her grandmother tells. So when she gets a chance to play a part in Peter Pan, she knows exactly who she wants to be. Remarkable watercolor illustrations give full expression to Grace’s high-flying imagination.”

Word person that I am, I’m still going to talk about the pictures first for Amazing Grace. Caroline Binch has created an extraordinary work of art here, precisely because the pictures aren’t “extraordinary” in the usual sense. They are life-like. It’s not photo-realism, but it’s clear on every page that she must have taken the people in the book from life – she had models. You look at Grace and Mama and Nana, and you are POSITIVE that they are real people who agreed to pose for the illustrations. And Caroline’s genius is that she achieves this powerful sense without photo-realism. There are soft edges. You know it’s a painting. But the personhood it depicts leaps out of the page at you.

That’s especially important for this story, in which Grace is struggling to overcome the limitations other people want to set for her. Her own peers try to use her gender and her race against her, and just as the illustrations are life-like, the text is life-like too – undramatic, simple, and resoundingly true. Grace’s classmates aren’t deliberately cruel. They’re unconsciously giving voice to the prejudices that are accepted by the world around them. The same children are just as susceptible to Grace’s confidence and talent when she finds the courage to display them.

This is what makes Amazing Grace so powerful – the just-plainness of it, the way you immediately recognize it as truth despite the fact that story is fiction. The best art, in my view, reveals and reflects on truth. Mary Hoffman pulls it off, with both simplicity and depth. Where some stories can be funny for both children and adults, this story can be true and encouraging for readers of all ages.

This book is available on Amazon in hard cover, paperback, ebook, and audiobook editions, and a special 25th anniversary edition.

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