Education Opinion

What Book Awards Tell Us About Ourselves

By Francis E. Kazemek — April 26, 1995 9 min read

It is impossible to avoid this tumult. We find it in our classrooms, school board meetings, Congress, and almost daily in the mass media. We should not be surprised to find it among those involved in the writing, promoting, and teaching of children’s literature.

The 1995 Caldecott Medal awarded to Smoky Night (Harcourt Brace, 1994) by the American Library Association for the best children’s picture book published in the United States illustrates such cultural tumult and also well-meaning but intellectually wrong-headed confusion. This book, written by the popular and respected author Eve Bunting and illustrated by David Diaz, reflects clearly how the best of intentions left unexamined can lead to dubious results. As such, I believe it can serve as an object lesson for those of us concerned with the promotion of democratic and multicultural education through literature and stories.

Smoky Night tells the story of the 1992 Los Angeles riots through the eyes of Daniel, an African-American boy who lives with his mother and their cat in the violence-wracked neighborhood. It is a somber book in both tone and illustrations. Ultimately, the riots force Daniel and his mother to seek shelter in a church hall. Once there, they discover it is possible to get along with people they heretofore had little positive communication with, people as diverse as “Mrs. Kim.” The predominant theme of the book is highlighted in a final exchange between Daniel and his mother over two cats: “ ‘Look at that!’ Mama is all amazed. ‘I thought those two didn’t like each other?’ ‘They probably didn’t know each other before,’ I explain. ‘Now they do.’”

Thus, on the surface, we see a picture book that uses a recent traumatic event to explore community and cross-cultural understanding. Like many contemporary books for children and young adults, it is “relevant” and carries various social messages. It is the kind of book that many teachers and librarians admire (and obviously the Caldecott selection committee did, too) and readily use with students. But what do we find if we look below the surface? I maintain that we discover negative and confusing images that run counter to our purported goal of democracy and multicultural understanding.

The format of the book and the age of the narrator immediately tell us that this story is for young children. And here is the first problem I have with it: There is a lack of context. Children 6, 7, and 8 years of age are thrown into a chaotic situation with no understanding of its complex causes, that is, the interrelationships and conflicts among race, class, economics, politics, and our legal system. In an attempt to explain the riots, Mama tells Daniel, “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.” The accompanying illustration shows three men carrying a television set and a fourth about to strike someone or something with a baseball bat.

Children know this isn’t true. People don’t smash and destroy and abandon standards of right and wrong just because they’re angry. If the people they know don’t do this, then it must be someone else, the psychological “Other,” who does. Mr. Diaz, the illustrator, doesn’t represent the characters realistically according to race; instead, he uses shades of blue, green, yellow, orange, red, and purple to portray them generically. The Korean grocer, Mrs. Kim, looks more African-American than Asian.

We know, however, that those involved in the Los Angeles riots were primarily African-American and Latino. The riots were largely about race, and by failing to acknowledge and address this fact, Mr. Diaz’s illustrations inadvertently foster the very kind of race alienation they are designed to overcome. All that children know from the book is that these are strange, angry, yelling, and violent people who can’t control themselves. When white children, for example, the children in my own community, subsequently learn that these people were African-American and Latino, many incipient racial stereotypes will be confirmed.

This attempt by Ms. Bunting and Mr. Diaz to avoid the unavoidable issue of race is further complicated by an example of racism they introduce but fail to develop or explain. Daniel and his mother don’t shop at Mrs. Kim’s store even though it’s close to their apartment. “Mama says it’s better if we buy from our own people,” Daniel says. Thus, the only specific instance of racism readers of the book encounter is Mama’s African-American racism toward the Korean woman yelling at looters in a strange language. The catalyst for the riots, the Rodney King case, the ghettoization of poor people, white racism, and the complex relationships between Asian shopkeepers and the black inner-city populations which they often serve are all absent from the book.

The lack of context and muddled presentation of racial issues results in a scary world in which people do wicked things for no reason or for no reason other than the fact that they are angry. In the smoky night of riot and lawlessness, the streets have become a metaphor for hell. People, primarily African-Americans, are wildly demonic. Daniel sees two women and a man breaking windows and stealing shoes. He says, “I never heard anybody laugh the way they laugh.” He is frightened and asks his mother, “Will they come here?” She tries to comfort him by saying she and he will sleep together that night. The next thing he knows she is shaking him from sleep because their building is on fire.

As they walk with other people to the shelter, Daniel is crying and observes, “I grab hold of Mama because I think I see a dead man with no arms lying there, too. But it’s just one of those plastic people that show off clothes in department stores.” The smashed streetlights, broken glass, and burning buildings are terrifying for anyone, but especially for a child. Once at the shelter Daniel says, “People keep coming. Some of them are crying. One woman screams and screams. I hide under my blanket.”

David Diaz’s acrylic paintings are embedded within collages of torn, cut, and wrinkled paper; wallpaper; cloth; a dry-cleaner’s plastic bags; hangers; broken glass; and stick matches. The cumulative effect is one of confusion, if not chaos. While the illustrations might work artistically to complement the story line, they also contribute to the nighttime terror that Daniel faces. The collage that serves as both the front and end papers of the book is centered around stick matches and red, jagged paper flames. Children encounter turmoil and threat as they open and close the book. It is little wonder that a couple of reviews in professional journals report children as saying that it’s a “scary book.”

The stereotypical “happy ending” does little I believe to compensate for the menace, lack of context, and confusing messages about race that have preceded it. Daniel’s and Mrs. Kim’s cats that previously fought all the time have become friends, “holding paws” and drinking “from the same dish.” Daniel’s mother and Mrs. Kim realize that they too might become friends. The causes of the riots have been reduced to two women not understanding and speaking to each other; this trivializes the riots’ complexity and seriousness. The message with which the book ends--if cats can get along so can people--does little to comfort the child reader who has been told and shown that violence, rage, and destruction are random and often faceless, if not unexplainable.

Ultimately, we must ask whom and what this book is for. Ms. Bunting dedicates it to the “peacekeepers.” It teaches children through story and visual art the importance of getting along with others. On the other hand, some reviewers of the book have defended it on the grounds that it is a work of art and must be judged on that basis alone. They argue that issues of child appeal, emotional impact, readability, and pedagogy might be practical interests but are not relevant when evaluating the artistic merits of the book. I think both perspectives miss the mark.

We know from the work of people like the child psychiatrist Robert Coles that children are capable of deep emotional, spiritual, and moral understanding. At issue in my discussion is not whether children are able to engage serious topics. Likewise, I am not critical of the book’s putative message. The late novelist and poet John Gardner argued that we can’t ignore questions of morality and immorality when looking at any work of art, whether it be a novel, poem, painting, symphony, or children’s book. The issue for all of us should be how we go about engaging children in imaginatively rich works of art that address the vital concerns of our time.

Smoky Night</> reflects for me the often uninformed rush to multiculturalism that we find in our schools, libraries, educational journals, and at our professional conferences. Educators with little knowledge, understanding, or experience of diverse cultures often use books simply because the characters are African-American, or Latino, or Native American. Without a commitment to multiculturalism that only can be achieved through ongoing personal and professional engagement, study, and serious exploration, educators promote a superficial understanding among their students. The road to racism is paved with good intentions and superficiality.

We also must ask ourselves what is appropriate for children at certain ages. I know, as some reviewers have asserted, that children’s books can be read at various levels of sophistication; however, like Smoky Night, they primarily are written for children. As such, we cannot ignore questions of child interest, emotional impact, readability, and pedagogy. We cannot dismiss questions of moral impact. Thus, while I most certainly am not advocating particular kinds of censorship, I most certainly am advocating that we look closely at how a particular book addresses particular topics for a particular readership. Perhaps there are some subjects that are too complex to be explored honestly with children of a particular age. Lacking complexity, the exploration becomes trivial. The 1992 Los Angeles riots are one such subject for primary-grade children, at least as it is presented in Smoky Night.

As I write this I can hear objections from individuals all along the political and ideological spectrum. I can hear censors and those opposed to multicultural education twisting my words to fit their own ends. I can see and hear authors and scholars of children’s literature shaking their heads in disagreement and muttering “censor” and “philistine.” What I long to hear among educators, librarians, authors, parents, and the general public is an ongoing dialogue about the relationships among literature, art, pedagogy, and morality in fostering a more just and humane society.

A version of this article appeared in the April 26, 1995 edition of Education Week as What Book Awards Tell Us About Ourselves