Mom is working. Dad is cooking. Sister is on the phone. Everyone is too busy to play with the youngest kid in John Rocco’s Blackout.

And every child who reads the book will know exactly how the child feels, going to a room, alone, to play video games. And every parent who reads the book will know exactly how the dad feels, when they see the twinge of regret on his face.

But some days are like that. Everyone is busy.

And then the lights go out.

What is a family to do during a blackout on a hot summer night? They make hand shadows on the wall and play board games by candle light until it’s too hot and sticky to stay inside another moment. Then they climb the stairs to the roof.

And there, on the roof, they see the sky lit with stars like you never see in the city. Huge, bright, twinkling stars. And they see their neighbors, cooking on a grill, eating by candlelight, sharing the view. And they hear other neighbors on the street below, so down they go to join the party. The neighbors share their music and their ice cream and their time, until the lights come back on.

And then?

And then the youngest child finds a way to extend the magic of the night.

A Caldecott Honor Book

It’s a beautiful, sweet, lovely story, based loosely on Rocco’s experiences during the Northeast Blackout of 2003.

The artwork is as gorgeous as you’d expect from a Caldecott Honor Book. The style is more like a graphic novel than a traditional picture book, which may expand its appeal to older children. The pages during the blackout are washed in blue and gray and black, with spots of brightness and color.

A Diverse Family in a Diverse Neighborhood

The story is set in Brooklyn. The people in the book are drawn with warmth and affection. On the street and on the rooftop, you see people who are old and young, black and white and brown, able and disabled.

The family that is the center of the story is a normal family with a dad, a mom, two kids, and a cat. In the ultra conventional and snow-white world of picture books, though, the family is extraordinary. It’s not just that the dad cooks dinner while the mom works at her computer. It’s a mixed race family. The dad is white; the mom is black.

The older child is a girl. The younger child is a child. With scruffy hair, shorts, and a T-shirt, the child could be either a girl or a boy. I’ve read reviews that said the one, and reviews that said the other. I looked for anything from the author about what he intended, and found nothing.

But the ambiguity in the child’s gender is clearly intentional. The child is never referred to with gendered pronouns. And when you’re telling a story, that takes a lot of work!

But Rocco clearly thought it was important. I don’t know why; I looked for an explanation from him and didn’t find one. But there is one major advantage to having a protagonist who could be either a girl or a boy. It allows boys to read Blackout as a boys’ book, and girls to read it as a girls’ book.

If that means more children read Blackout, that’s a very good thing.

Read More

17 essential picture books for Orthodox Christian kids: If you’re looking for picture books that include stories about Orthodox Christian people and traditions, you’ll find them on this list.

Disabilities and Special Needs in the Church: Some people are uncomfortable around people with disabilities. They don’t know what to do or say. You can get some advice here, from people with disabilities, to make it easier.

Justinian and Theodora: A Love Story: St. Theodora, the wife and co-ruler with St. Justinian the Great, is one of my very favorite saints.

Charlotte Riggle, author of Catherine's Pascha and The Saint Nicholas Day Snow
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