Smoky Night, written by Eve Bunting and illustrated by David Diaz, is the 1995 winner of the Caldecott Medal. The book tells the story of a boy, Daniel, and his mother as they experience first-hand the race riots in Los Angeles. Accompanying the childlike perspective of events are beautifully created illustrations, acrylic paintings overlaid on collage backgrounds.
The content and mood of the book is more serious than one would expect from a picture book, as it focuses on a controversial, recent event. Despite the severity of the events in the book, it remains hopeful as the young narrator helps the adults around him recognize the interconnectedness of all people. While the book does not attempt to sugarcoat the violence, by using the perspective of a young child, the emphasis is placed more on the overcoming of the violence rather than the violence itself. Despite probably not having the same experiences as Daniel, children will find him relatable because of his natural responses to events. The somber tone of the writing helps to capture the severity of the events, and the simple language brings the writing to a level appropriate for an elementary school child.
The expressionistic illustrations in the book further serve to develop the story. While bright colors, such as greens and yellows are used, the use of blues and grays, especially in characters’ faces, helps to show their emotions throughout their horrific experiences. Thick black outlines are used, which make the art seem more modern, almost like a street mural. Each page follows the same format- the text box on the left side and the picture on the right, with a mixed media collage background. The backgrounds help to extend the action of the story by creating a sense of it being real, for example, using dried cereal and pasta on a page about the looting of a grocery store. Such backgrounds help to ground the illustrations in the context of reality and stretch the reader’s imagination in thinking about the story. Together, the story’s words and illustrations come together to offer readers an opportunity to see how another child might live and open a doorway for important conversations about the history of racial violence in our country.
Posted by Rachel Riendeau