The Purple Coat – written by Amy Hest, illustrated by Amy Schwartz, Four Winds Press (Macmillan), 1986
Gabrielle is so enamored of the color purple that she addresses it personally in the pile of fabric that her grandfather, a tailor, keeps stacked in his workshop. When her mother takes her on the commuter train to Manhattan to visit him and to get measured for a new winter coat, Gabrielle insists on a rather unorthodox choice for a child’s outwear in mid-century New York. But grandparents sometimes convince parents to accede to children’s wishes, especially when the parents themselves had harbored equally unreasonable demands when they were kids themselves. Amy Hest and Amy Schwartz’s story is set in a now nostalgic city of busy commuters and pastrami sandwiches, but the core of Gabrielle’s relationship with Grandpa is as relevant today as when the book first appeared.
Schwartz’s picture of a train rounding the tunnel into Penn Station ushers Gabrielle and her mother into their special day in the city. The two-page spread of the subway at Thirty-Fourth Street shows New Yorkers rushing past the signs to the Broadway Local and the Crosstown Shuttle. A lady in a green herringbone coat carries a purse too small to be anything but decorative and a Hasidic gentleman reads the paper as he walks towards the train. Nowhere but New York! When they arrive at Grandpa’s large office building, another trip, in a crowded elevator, leads them to a long corridor. The black and white tiles, which match the large pink and white plaid of Mama’s coat, give an Alice in Wonderland feeling of fantasy to the trip.
Grandpa’s office is full of all the details of his trade, from bobbins mounted on a board to a probably ineffective ceiling fan. Then there’s the fabric, “…stacked in open shelves way up to the ceiling and down to the polished wood floor. Hello Purple, she whispers.” Gabby has her heart set on a purple coat, not a practical navy blue one. A picture of Grandpa and Gabby enjoying deli sandwiches together, after Mama has left to do errands, captures the essence of their bond. Both sit on top of Grandpa’s desk; he places his feet on a swivel chair, having reversed the purpose for which these two items of furniture would ordinarily be used. Their facial expressions and sandwich-holding postures are nearly identical. They understand one another. After lunch, Gabby holds a large bolt of purple fabric bigger than she is, prepared to negotiate for her demand. When Grandpa reminds her that her mother nixed the purple idea, Gabby replies, “Not exactly…what she said was, navy blue coats are what I always get.” Who else but a grandparent would put up with this chutzpah?
There is a balletic scene of Grandpa measuring Gabby for her coat, color still to be determined. It turns out that Mama is more than reasonable and really empathetic when her father reminds her that she had once demanded a tangerine coat, and with the even more fantastic addition of puffed sleeves and “tiny tangerine buttons.” The three generations find a compromise between beauty and practicality. Just like Gabby and Grandpa’s discussion of sandwich preferences, salami or pastrami, Grandpa’s reminder that “Once in a while it’s good to try something new” saves the day. Mama kicks off her black pumps, relieved to find a compromise, and everyone’s happy.