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Big Picture

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The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Keeping the Night Watch

By Hope Anita Smith; illustrated by E. B. Lewis

“This is a mess,” says thirteen-year-old C. J., as he cleans up after a family dinner strained with the politeness of too much left unsaid—too many hurts, too many hopes—to which his patient and watchful grandmother responds, “No, this is a family.”

C. J.’s family wasn’t always a mess, but when his daddy lost his job and walked out in The Way a Door Closes (BCCB 5/03), C. J. learned through bitter experience that his father wasn’t the sure thing C. J. had always depended on him to be. C. J. stepped into the shoes of a man that year, and now that Daddy is back, the boy isn’t quite sure where he fits in their reunited family. The rest of the family—Momma, Grandmomma, and younger siblings Byron and Zuri—all seem to have forgiven their father for his desertion; they welcome him back with smiles, pick-up games of basketball, and bedtime stories, but underneath their acceptance, C. J. senses their unspoken fears and magnifies them with his anger. The unanswered questions about why Daddy left their happy family have left lingering distrust that is evident in Momma’s “painted-on smile,” C. J.’s anger, and Zuri’s anxious clinging. Zuri, in fact, is pivotal to helping C. J. and the rest of the family vocalize their pain, first through her play-acting, then through sleeping at the door so that her daddy can’t leave in the night, and finally through an acrostic poem based on the alphabet that functions as a direct plea for her family to start talking to each other. By that time, however, C.J.’s heart has already been softened by a budding romance of his own that makes him feel tender and forgiving toward the difficulties inherent in emotional matters.

Smith tells a story ragged in its truth but ultimately suffused with hope and forgiveness. Deployed in a range of poetic styles, her metaphors make emotions concrete and visible, opening up curricular possibilities for the study of figurative language, symbolism, and poetic form. “Seven Ways of Looking at My Father,” for instance, explores seven expanded metaphors that express C. J.’s frustration over his father’s tenuous and uncertain place in his life. “Maya’s Sonnet” opens up that rather lofty form of poetry in a way that is accessible and relevant to young readers’ own experience in its simplicity and everyday language. These and other poems make traditional forms of poetry available to nascent literary critics and writers, but Smith brings even more to the curricular banquet as her work provides an effective introduction to many of the characteristics that recur in African-American literature. Rhythmic, evocative language with rich dramatic overtones characterize C. J.’s reflections on his situation, Grandmomma, Daddy, and Momma rely on aphorisms and proverbs to move C. J. in the directions they wish, and his friend Preacher has earned his name by his sermonic evocations of black church rhetoric. The final poem brings together the culturally embedded values of intergenerational family ties, dance, and faith that often characterize the celebration of black family life.

Lewis’ achingly sensitive watercolors play no small part in conveying Smith’s tone and message throughout the book. Alternating between tight realism and illustrated metaphors, the illustrations capture both outward challenges and inner states of mind as they show an angry boy nose to nose with a father who can’t back down, or that same boy bearing the weight of a wheelbarrow full of question marks. The draftsmanship is subdued and quiet, with tonal resonances played out as much in perspective as in subject matter. Taken together, the poems and their illustrations will encourage multimodal response; here is a lovely melding of accessible beauty, hard truth, and aesthetic inspiration for young readers and budding writers.

Karen Coats, Reviewer

Big Picture Image

Cover image by E. B. Lewis from Keeping the Night Watch ©2008. Used by permission of Henry Holt and Company.

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This page was last updated on June 1, 2008.