When Smoky Night was released in 1994, there were people who wondered why anyone would want a picture book about a night of rioting. It didn’t seem like a topic suitable for children. Perhaps the book never would have found an audience, had David Diaz’s magnificent illustrations earned the Caldecott medal.
But the award ensured the book the attention of parents and teachers and librarians and reviewers. And it did something else, too. It opened the world of picture books to challenging topics and difficult discussions.
So the book is important. But is it good? Is it a book I would want my grandchildren and godchildren to read?
How to Use Challenging Stories
One of the most important gifts that books give us is the ability to experience things through the story that we haven’t experienced in life. Through a book, we can imagine what it would be like to have a friend who doesn’t have enough to eat, or to live in a place where girls can’t go to school, or rioting in our neighborhood. By experiencing these challenges in a story, we can explore how we would want to respond to them, if we ever found ourselves in such a situation. And that means we’re prepared to understand dark days and smoky nights before we ever have to face them.
The Church, of course, has always known this about stories. That’s why we tell the stories of the saints. When children hear the lives of the saints at church, or when they read books about Chiune Sugihara or Mother Maria of Paris, they learn powerful lessons about faith and courage. While we can (and should) pray that our country and our children never need that kind of courage, we still want them to know how to do the right thing, even when it’s hard.
The story that Eve Bunting tells in Smoky Night is both simpler and more difficult than the saint stories. Daniel, the boy who narrates the story, isn’t asked to do anything particularly heroic. He doesn’t do anything to put himself in danger, or to rescue someone else from danger. But he is in danger. His neighborhood has broken out in riots. He watches from his window and tries to understand.
His mother gives him brief, simple answers. When the story came out, some considered the answers too brief, too simple. They wanted his mom to explain the riots that the story was (rather loosely) based on. But if Bunting had done that, the story would have been about a particular riot. This way, it’s universal.
And, for the purposes of the story, it makes sense that the answers would be brief. No doubt Daniel and his mom have talked about the issues facing their neighborhood before that night. But her focus is not on the causes, the history. Those matter, but this night, she is focused on keeping herself and her son safe.
And Daniel wants to keep his cat safe, too. When the building is set on fire, he thinks he’s lost her. The cat that belongs to his neighbor, Mrs. Kim, is also missing. The cats don’t like each other much. Daniel and his mom don’t care much for Mrs. Kim. But there was no time to look for the cats with the building on fire.
Smoky Night ends, not joyfully, but hopefully, with the cats being found safe and Mrs. Kim and Daniel’s mother making tentative steps toward friendship.
Danger, Safety, and Smoky Night
If you read Smoky Night with your child (and I hope you will), it would be good to approach it with Fred Rogers’ gentle advice for helping children deal with scary events. You can reassure them, as Mr. Rogers did, by telling them, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”
Have your children identify the people who helped Daniel. Talk about the emergency shelter. Talk to them about how the Church shelters us from evil as well. And remind them that in every Divine Liturgy, we ask God to deliver us from all tribulation, wrath, danger, and necessity, and to grant us an angel to guide us and guard our souls and bodies.
The Church doesn’t hide the pain and dangers of this life from our children. The world can be a scary place. And our children will hear about scary things, and they’re likely to face some of the scary things they hear about. It’s good for them to hear about such things when they’re snuggled up with you, and you can assure them that God will give them the help they need: Parents, and firemen, and guardian angels.
Bad things might happen, but we never have to face them alone.
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