Smoky Night

written by Eve Bunting
illustrated by David Diaz

Eve Bunting's Smoky Night
illustrations by David Diaz

Children's book review by Steve Barancik

Ages 5-10

Racial reconciliation amid the L.A. riots

Sometimes the picture book market feels quite segregated to me, the divide as much socioeconomic as racial.

On the one hand, you have the bulk of the market, aimed at the parents most able to afford the books. These parents, to judge by the reading material, are intent on providing their young ones emotionally unthreatening entertainment.

Then there's another corner of the market, often aimed at African-American parents, where harsh truths are on full display rather than hidden.

Parents of means, I believe, tend to avoid these books not because of race, but because they require a greater sacrifice of innocence than they believe their children require at such a tender age.

Then along comes Eve Bunting, ably assisted by David Diaz, with Smoky Night. This wonderful book presents harsh realities gently, then softens them further with a lovely picture book ending. It is here that the two markets can meet.

Smoky Night - Review

A boy and his mother watch from their apartment window as the Los Angeles riots play out below them.

Anger has degenerated into something less legitimate, the mother explains, as local businesses are looted. Across the street they watch as the proprietor of Kim's Market fails to stave off the mob.

My mama and I don't go in Mrs. Kim's market even though it's close. Mama says it's better if we buy from our own people.

And frankly, the child has his own gripe with Mrs. Kim, who lives in their building. His beloved cat, Jasmine, and Mrs. Kim's cat don't get along, to put it mildly. Mrs. Kim yells at Jasmine.

Now, just as it seems that the rioting has moved on to another neighborhood, the apartment building goes up in flames. The residents are rushed out. But Jasmine is nowhere to be found, and the boy worries that she remains inside. A fireman with bigger issues to deal with tries to reassure the boy,

firefighter rescues cats

Probably not, son. Cats are plenty smart. She'll be long gone.

The kid isn't entirely buying it.

The residents are taken to a shelter. Shortly thereafter, that same fireman re-enters, carrying both Jasmine and Mrs. Kim's cat. He found them together, huddled against the smoke. And get this: the cats are now fast friends. They share a dish of milk.

The boy's mother takes inspiration from the reconciliation. Shyly approaching Mrs. Kim, she suggests that "when things settle down" Mrs. Kim should bring her cat over for a visit.

Like I said: real world circumstances, picture book ending.

I'd be negligent not to note David Diaz's multifaceted illustrations, which earned him the 1995 Caldecott Medal. His primitive acrylic paintings on watercolor paper tell the story, while his found object collage backgrounds set the tone. The resulting spreads would be comfortable in a fine art gallery.

Smoky Night is a spectacular collaboration, a picture book that remains relevant and popular.

Webmaster's note: I'm gonna put in a plug for one of my favorite movies, for after you've put the kids to bed. Crash won the 2006 Oscar for Best Motion Picture, and you'll find both the setting and the content highly relevant to Smoky Night.

More Caldecott reviews.

More multicultural children's books.

More of Steve's reviews.

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