In Laura E. Williams’ The Can Man, a young boy awakens to compassion. Tim’s bi-racial family remembers when Mr. Peters lived in their building, so they don’t respond to him as the homeless can collector he’s become since he lost his job. Plot tension develops quickly: Tim wants a skateboard for his birthday; his family, not well off themselves, can’t afford it, and Tim’s solution is morally dubious.
Craig Orback’s respectful, sensitive oil paintings depict life in a tree-lined neighborhood of neat three-story apartment buildings. One day Tim gets an idea, and while young readers will identify with his excitement as he begins to collect cans himself to earn money, they’ll also experience an unsettling prick of conscience, for Tim hasn’t realized, as they will have, that he’s taking the cans Mr. Peters relies on for income.
The neighborhood grocer and Tim’s mom both mention that Mr. Peters usually collects those cans, but Tim’s fixation on the skateboard has deafened his conscience. It’s only when he runs into Mr. Peters himself, clutching at his tattered coat on a winter Saturday, his shopping cart nearly empty, that Tim begins to consider the consequences of his greed.
Orback and Williams, who have each won numerous awards for their respective projects, make a fine team for The Can Man. Both Mr. Peters and Tim get what they need by the end of the story. Between the lines and through the images, an unspoken message is that young people develop moral sensitivity through the example of their elders. Tim has wise role models in his mother and the grocer as well as in Mr. Peters, whose humanity shines through despite potentially embittering circumstances. Tim is a fortunate boy, and young readers will likely take in many levels of meaning from this subtle, powerful story.