Smoky Nights


Review of Smoky Night.  Eve Bunting, Illus. David Diaz.

How does one discuss a terrifying and divisive incident like the Los Angeles riots in a book intended for small children?  Writer, Eve Bunting, and illustrator, David Diaz, face that problem in their multiple award winning Smoky Night.  The focus of the story is a small boy, Daniel, and his mother who are forced to flee their apartment in the middle of the night because of fire.  In their flight, Daniel loses track of his beloved cat, Jasmine.  Later, at the shelter, a fireman brings Jasmine and the cat of shopkeeper, Mrs. Kim, telling them that the two frightened cats were “holding paws” beneath a staircase when he rescued them.  The book closes with a new understanding between Daniel, his mother and Mrs. Kim.  The author and illustrator surmount significant challenges in telling this tale.

Challenge Number One.  How does one explain a riot to children and how much moral judgment should be made?  The explanation of the riot comes from Daniel’s mother as they stand in their apartment window looking down on the event.  We learn indirectly in the first line of text of the danger of the situation.  Narrator Daniel says, “Mama and I stand well back from our window….  We don’t have our lights on though it’s almost dark.”  Illustrator, Diaz shows a boy cradling his cat. Behind him with both hands on his shoulders is his mother.  The window has a yellow glow, which is reflected on both their faces.  Visually the threesome is solidly linked and stable.  On the second page Mama explains what is going on, “It can happen when people get angry.  They want to smash and destroy.  They don’t care anymore what’s right and what’s wrong.”  Daniel observes, “They look angry.  But they look happy, too.”  When he sees some men carrying a TV and asks if they are stealing it, “Mama nods.”  This is followed by three more page spreads of the mayhem they observe, a shoe store, a drycleaners, and Mrs. Kim’s store being looted.  It is here we learn that Mama and Daniel don’t shop at Mrs. Kim’s because Mama has said it’s better to go farther and “buy from our own people.”  Mrs. Kim is shouting in a language Daniel can’t understand.  Daniel and his mother attempt to sleep but are awakened when their building catches fire.  Mama takes care of Daniel; a neighbor, Mr. Ramirez, carries his two children, the fireman tires to reassure Daniel that Jasmine probably got out, and a “lady” appears to lead the residents to a temporary shelter.  So despite a fair depiction of the danger and chaos of the riot, the child narrator is depicted as cared for and protected.  Further, none of the rioters are visually depicted as malevolent or bestial.  There is a similarity in the visual compositions of the riot incidents and the resident scenes and among the expressions of the faces (rioters, residents, firemen) that avoids demonization of the rioters.

Challenge Number Two.  How does one handle the racial and ethnic elements of the story of the riot? Here too, Bunting and Diaz find ways to address the issue without stereotyping, partially by blurring ethnic identities when it doesn’t matter and by identifying them subtly when they do.  The skin tones of all the characters are quite similar, mostly purples, blues with some yellowish highlights.  This seems to suggest there is more in common between the people than not.  It also makes sense narratively because the whole story takes place on a “smoky night.”  Mrs. Kim, probably one of the Korean shopkeepers that may have been target of special anger during the LA riots, speaks words Daniel doesn’t understand and is dressed in a jade green dress decorated with blocks vaguely suggesting Chinese ideograms.  Mr. Ramirez, with his obviously Hispanic name, has a thin mustache, and the woman who leads them to a shelter and the one who gives milk to Jasmine in the shelter may have a lighter brown hair than the rest of the characters.  One of the rioters who is robbing the shoe store has reddish hair and looks possibly Caucasian.  Again the visual text tends to tie together the ethnic identities rather than stress their differences.  At the climax of the narration, when the two rescued cats (Daniel’s and Mrs. Kim’s) drink milk from the same bowl, Mama invites Mrs. Kim to supper when they are all back home, and she accepts.  So visually and narratively, the stress is on the mending of differences between ethnic groups.

The book is visually stunning.  Each two-page spread is covered with a collage, consisting of richly textured, frequently gritty material, from cardboard to dry cleaning in its bags to children’s cereal.  Superimposed on the left page is a light-colored box of textured paper that contains the text.  On the right hand page in a black-bordered box area  acrylic paintings depict the actual scenes of the story.  The colors and shapes are blocked in by black lines, making vivid, elemental pictures that produce stylized, evocative pictures.  These story picture boxes and their simplicity contrast nicely with the collages they are placed on.  The resulting collaboration between author and illustrator is a successful rendering of a potentially frightening topic that should provoke discussion and some understanding without oversimplifying causes and blame for the riots.



Lesson - Illustrations & Text

Lesson - Interpreting Instructions

Lesson - Summary, Main Idea

Lesson - Meaning: Literal and Inferential


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