Book Review: Smoky Night

Rating: ★★★★☆

In Smoky Night, Eve Bunting tells the story of a young boy, trapped with his mother in their apartment while riots erupt in the street below.  Comforted by his mother’s protective presence, he watches with her while looters destroy local businesses, and eventually they are evacuated with neighbors when their building catches fire.  The painful story is sensitively presented, with carefully chosen details showing how the boy’s world is disrupted by violent lawlessness.  But throughout the traumatic events, there is a general sense of orientation in his close relationship to his mother and in connection with his neighbors.

Three devices soften the impact of the book’s terrifying events.  First, in the most frightening part of the story, the boy’s feelings center on his lost cat, who will eventually be recovered.  This helps bring his natural feelings of terror to a more manageable size, as he worries over the cat rather than worrying about himself.  Second, Diaz’s visual interpretation consists of colorful, rather abstract paintings set against a backdrop of real-object collage: shoe soles set the background for the looting of a shoe store, and mixed cereals surround the shouting proprieter of the local market as her stock is carried away.  This abstract presentation contributes in a way to the confusion and disorientation of the story events, but also provides a kind of emotional distance that softens the impact of the terrible destruction witnessed there.  Finally, the story ends on a positive note: neighbors who previously avoided speaking strike up a friendship after their cats are found sheltering together.  While the riot may be bewildering, the story of the rescued cats and the reconciled relationship help counterbalance the pain of that terrible night, grounding the riots within smaller events that are easier to comprehend.

This is a serious story which may be upsetting to some readers.  It was inspired by the 1992 Los Angeles riots, and given the recent rioting in Britain and flashmob behavior in Chicago, its application may soon be more broadly applicable than we might wish.  If parents feel the need to discuss these kinds of events with their children, this book book may be a helpful way to open the conversation.

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Publication Information: Bunting, Eve. Smoky Night. Diaz, David (Illustrator). Harcourt. 1994. ISBN: 0152018840.
Categories: 4 Stars, Age 04-08, Caldecott Medal
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Posted on August 15, 2011

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