Smoky Night challenges readers to think about themselves. In the story, a young African American boy, his cat Jasmine, and his mother watch the riots unfolding in the streets of Los Angeles, as the reckless public steal a TV, clothes, and even groceries from Mrs. Kim’s Korean grocery store. The boy and his mother go to sleep in their day clothes, when a fire ignites within their apartment building, and they are forced to flee to a shelter with their neighbors. Two missing cats help to mend the discord in people’s hearts.
“They probably didn’t know each other before,” says the young boy, about the two cats who were reunited after the fire.
Smoky Night is a thought-provoking, serious picture book with themes of racism, violence, tolerance, and acceptance. At first, the two cats do not like each other, but enduring a difficult situation together brings them closer, and gives them the opportunity to understand one another. Likewise, the community follows suit, starting with the boy’s mother and Mrs. Kim by extending and accepting an invitation to learn more about each other. This picture book has a beautiful message amiss the violence. Published in 1994, Smoky Night is a remarkable social commentary about its time.
The powerful illustrations are just as beautiful. The picture book mixes various mediums, such as acrylic paintings, hand-lettered techniques, and relevant, carefully composed real-life backgrounds arranged and photographed by David Diaz. The unique style shows that it is every bit deserving of its Caldecott medal through its use of texture, themes, and provoking story. My only criticism is that a young child (and even adults) may not be able to interpret some content in the photographed backgrounds due to its abstract nature.
Otherwise, I highly recommend this story, particularly for classroom lessons and discussion for children. This offers the chance and challenge for children to engage in their ideas about community, racism, cooperation, and differences. Parents may also want to share this story at home to help children navigate these subjects.