Shoebox Sam is about an old man named Sam who owns a shoe repair store. Two children, Delia and Jesse, come to visit and help out at the store. Throughout the book, Sam helps some very needy customers, who are all in need of new shoes. Sam’s good deeds are done for free, and he even gives away a special pair of ballerina slippers that once belonged to a famous dancer. All throughout the book, Delia and Jesse learn a lesson in giving back to those who are in need. Mary Brigid teaches this lesson through great storytelling, along with amazing and colorful artwork by Frank Morrison, a Coretta Scott-King Award-winning illustrator, in Shoebox Sam.
When speaking to Mary Brigid, you immediately realize just how much she loves the art of storytelling. Her interest in writing stems from a trip she took with her family to one of her favorite author’s grave, Louisa May Alcott, who wrote Little Women.
“I looked up, and it was a spring day. There were huge tall pine trees at the crest of the hill and shafts of light were coming down streaking in between shadows of the pine trees,” Mary Brigid recalls. “[My daughters] Elizabeth and Emily were dancing in and out of the gravestones and in and out of light, and it was sort of like a sign. It was like one of those moments where you think … sort of [like] the universe was echoing you’re making the right decision.”
Growing up, some of Mary Brigid’s favorite children’s books were Little Women, Gone Away Lake and Charlotte’s Web. However, she wishes she had some of the books that children have today.
“Some of those stories were lovely, and they were great for escapism, but they didn’t really resonate with the experiences that I had growing up,” Mary Brigid says. “Classic literature and also entertainment was not really so readily available when I was kid, and I think that’s a good thing that has happened in children’s books.”
When writing her children’s books, she keeps in mind that her audience is children, but she also notes that their parents will most likely read the books to the kids. For this reason, she adds little things in her stories to keep the child and the adult’s attention.
“It gets really hard for adults who are going to read a book for the 27th time, so I try to build them with interest and some humor that will keep the adults from getting bored too,” Mary Brigid admits. “So, when I write a picture book manuscript, I definitely sort of plant an interest, poignancy and humor in there that I hope kids will respond to but also the adult reading the book will respond to too.”
Mary Brigid’s books are based on inspirations and experiences in her life. In Shoebox Sam, her father inspired the character Sam. Mary Brigid’s dad suffered from an illness for most of his life, but he always found a way to give back to the community.
Another inspiration came from a watercolor painting of a female African elephant and its baby. Mary Brigid had it painted just for fun as a family gift. Her kids loved the painting, she says. At the time, the Children’s Hospital of Providence, Rhode Island was asking for donations of paintings from artists to put up in the hospital. She wanted to donate the painting because she knew how it felt while waiting in hospitals. Her children were reluctant to give it up at the time. In the end, they decided to donate it to the hospital. Mary Brigid saw this experience as a lesson in giving, which relates to Shoebox Sam.
“That kind of is the feeling behind Shoebox Sam—that not only do people need beauty in their lives and sometimes even frivolous beauty, but on the giver side of it, it’s not really a sacrifice or a spiritual gift unless you’re giving away something that you yourself cherish also,” Mary Brigid says.
Mary Brigid Barrett wants her readers to take at least one thing away from this book and to encourage kids and their parents to talk.
“I would love for my audience to get from this book that it is a warm familial experience,” she says. “It is a book that will encourage people and their kids to think about their lives and how they can give back to their extended families and communities. I hope it provokes that kind of conversation even in a very young child.”