Sunday, October 10, 2010

Smoky Night

By: Eve Bunting, Illustrated by David Diaz
Children’s Picture Book (Controversial): 2-6
Stars: 4 (out of 5)

Summary: This story follows the experience of a young boy who experiences the riots, theft, and fires that occur outside of his apartment. One day, his own apartment building catches on fire and he is unable to find his cat, whom he fears is caught in the fire. A neighbor, Mrs. Kim, who is disliked because she is different than the young boy and his mother, also cannot find her cat. In the end, both cats show up and mark the beginnings of a friendship between the little boy, his mother, and Mrs. Kim.

It makes complete sense why this book won a Caldecott Medal. The illustrations are bold, rich, and unique. I’m not sure of the technical term that describes the technique David Diaz used, but I would describe it as layers of texture behind sheets of text. He used some very interesting things to add texture, including cloth, thickened paint on canvas, crinkled paper, foil, bubble wrap, cereal, and dry cleaning bags with hangers. The illustrations on some pages are created using bright and rich colors, probably acrylics? Overall, the pages are a lot of fun to look at.

This book is considered one of the controversial literature books likely because of the way that rioting is portrayed. Many critics question why young children need to be aware of things such as riots, theft, and homelessness. The way that the thieves are portrayed as “laughing” and “smiling” might make the theft seem much more light-hearted than it really is. There is also some serious discrimination that is portrayed in this story. The little boy’s own mother refers to he “own people,” suggesting that there are definite and necessary distinctions between community members. Both the little boy and his mother refer to Mrs. Kim as someone who is very different, speaks a funny language, and someone who they would not choose to associate with, for she is not one of their “own people.” In the end though, the families are able to overcome their differences and be open to getting to know one another.

This to me, is the most important message. Even though we are all different, and might have different skin colors, speak different languages, eat different food, etc., we are all human beings and can have similar fears. Both the young boy and Mrs. Kim are terribly afraid that their cats will not make it out of the fire. The cats’ friendship and bonding over a terrible event is symbolic of what will happen with the mother and Mrs. Kim. The cats are able to share a bowl of milk, both drinking from the same dish, even though they are different. This ultimately symbolizes the women’s agreement to get to know one another and begin forming a friendship.

Even though there is difficult content to this story, the ending message is one that is very powerful and almost happy. There is finally hope. For that reason, I would consider using the story in my classroom to springboard a discussion on differences, discrimination, and “not judging a book by its cover.” It could definitely be used in conjunction with Rose Blanche to talk about the harmful effects of discrimination and set the stage for determining how to move past our differences. 

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