Generally speaking, children's picture books tend to avoid heavy subject matter. You'll almost never find, for example, a children's picture book that deals with rioting. Smoky Night is the exception. Unfortunately, it has multiple problems.
Eve Bunting's story is a child's eye view of the 1992 LA riots. But that's not something you would know from the context of the story itself. The main character watches from his window as rioters loot and burn in the street below him. When he asks why they're rioting he is merely told that sometimes people "get angry.... They forget what's right and what's wrong."
Oddly, the city, time, and place are never mentioned, nor is the reason for the riots. Bunting may have been attempting a universal look into rioting, but this simplistic explanation is insulting to children. Should a picture book run through the entire context surrounding the Rodney King beating and resulting riots? Not necessarily. But refusing to even acknowledge it diminishes the issue at hand, and the book's value as historical fiction.
Her shallow approach to racism is another problem. The main subplot of the story involves the sparring cats of two neighbors, one Korean and the other black. The mother of the main character is explicity racist towards the Korean neighbor. Yet once the cats make friends the neighbors "learn their lesson" and tensions between them evaporate.
Diaz's chaotic illustrations are certainly evocative, but not particularly pleasing to the eye. Half papercut, half found object photographs, the innovation won him the 1995 Caldecott medal. It was a controversial win, for many of the reasons mentioned above.
To give credit where it's due, Bunting's book did pave the way for more serious literature for children. In the wake of recent events like the rioting in Ferguson and Baltimore, books like this are important. But it's crucial that they do their job well. Part of that is understanding not just that rioting sometimes happens, but why it happens. On this count Smoky Night fails as historical fiction, especially for most young readers today who will likely have never heard of the LA riots.
We certainly can't discount this one entirely because it's unique. But it's a shame that even then it's not an effective story. It may be somewhat helpful in an ongoing discussion with your child about rioting and racism, but it's not a stand alone or even a starting point. If you do use it, just be sure to fill in the wide gaps this story leaves around its margins.
Review by Lauren Shearer
Lauren Shearer writes words for fun and profit. She also makes films, but everyone knows you can't make a profit doing that. Her other hobby is consistently volunteering way too much of her time. You can read more of her reviews here.
Review by Lauren Shearer
Lauren Shearer writes words for fun and profit. She also makes films, but everyone knows you can't make a profit doing that. Her other hobby is consistently volunteering way too much of her time. You can read more of her reviews here
Did you find this review helpful?