Picturing the Power of Community

By Matt de la Peña

Written and illustrated by Yuyi Morales

Written by David Bowles
Illustrated by Erika Meza

Written by Rosemary Wells
Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney

Written by Tricia Elam Walker
Illustrated by Ekua Holmes

We are living in a time of great polarization. We watch this cable news show or that one. We live on one side of the tracks or the other. We scowl at the unmasked parent at the playground or the parent wearing the N95-face-shield combo. Sometimes it seems we are so consumed with what separates us, what counts as a political or ideological win or loss, we forget to celebrate all that we have in common. Not even a global pandemic has changed this. Thankfully, four wonderful new picture books have come along that artfully acknowledge the impact of barriers but ultimately shine their light on the power of compassion, generosity and community.

“Bright Star,” which might be the Caldecott honoree Yuyi Morales’s best book yet, opens with an omniscient parental narrator proclaiming, “Child, you are awake. Breathe in, then breathe out, hermosa creatura. You are alive!”

We see a fawn curled in a ball, eyes just having opened to a new life. When it stands in the next spread, Mom is there with a loving gesture that sets in motion a profound journey, told in a pleasing blend of Spanish and English, through the wonders of a desert landscape. Make no mistake, there are dangers here. But in the midst of darkness the fawn is encouraged to “Shout it loud! Let the world know how you feel!” In the accompanying art, it butts up against a menacing wall topped with barbed wire.

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    The critique is obvious, but Morales resists moral lecturing. Instead, she focuses on what positive new story might bloom in such a complicated context. In an especially stirring sequence, the fawn, staring directly at the reader, is replaced by a young girl, who also stares at the reader. On the following page she is joined by several other humans of varying ages. Morales dares us to look away, dares us not to acknowledge their humanity. “Bright Star,” which was simultaneously published in an all-Spanish version called “Lucero,” does what very few picture books can do: captivate a child while moving the adult who is reading to her.

    We encounter a physical barrier again in “My Two Border Towns,” beautifully written by David Bowles, with vibrant illustrations by Erika Meza. In this case, however, our unnamed child narrator is able to pass through the border with little difficulty, because he and his father have U.S. passports, “cards that give us the freedom to travel back and forth.”

    While the setting in “Bright Star” is never specifically stated, in “My Two Border Towns” we know that the main character lives with his family in Texas, and that every other Saturday he and his father travel to “el Otro Lado” to run errands. Just before the border checkpoint, our narrator is reminded that “Coahuiltecans once lived here, before all this was Mexico — both riverbanks.” Now there are two countries and they must pay to cross. This sets up one of the central themes of the book, handled masterfully by both Bowles and Meza. The working-class neighborhoods on either side of the border are mirror images of each other. Spanish is the predominant language. The streets are teeming with life and there is a powerful sense of community. Father and son are just as at home in Mexico — grabbing breakfast at a favorite restaurant, weaving through vendor stalls, playing soccer in a vacant lot, picking up various items from local shops.

    This alone would make for an evocative and relevant story, but Bowles has one final turn for us. As the father and son are waiting to cross back into America, we discover that one of the purposes of their trip is to provide goods for refugee families from the Caribbean and Central America — people who are stuck between countries. Our narrator hops out of the idling car and visits with his friends, sharing comics and foods and medicines. The story closes with his longing for a day when they can pass back and forth between countries the way he can. “My Two Border Towns” is a sophisticated, heartfelt look at what life is like in the shadow of the border.

    In “The Welcome Chair,” written by Rosemary Wells and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, who died in October, the camera is pulled back so that we can take a more comprehensive, generational look at immigration in America. This is a wildly ambitious story, inspired by Wells’s own family legends, as well as by her immigrant father’s belief that “America’s door is open to suffering people from foreign lands.”

    In the early 1800s, Wells’s great-great-grandfather, a woodworker, leaves Bavaria to escape mounting pressure to become a rabbi like his father and grandfather. After arriving in New York, he finds work as a bookkeeper and an apprentice carpenter. When he makes a cherrywood rocking chair for his employers’ new child, carving the German word “Willkommen” into it, the story commences.

    As we watch the welcome chair pass from family to family, it becomes the backbone of the narrative, accompanied by vignettes exploring different communities and the fabric of America. Along the way, the word “welcome” is carved into the chair in many different languages, including Hebrew, English, Irish, Spanish and Haitian Creole. But it’s Pinkney’s intricate watercolor illustrations that truly bring the chair, the characters and an ever-changing America to life.

    While “The Welcome Chair” casts a wide geographic and temporal net — which can sometimes leave readers feeling spread thin — the stunning “Dream Street,” written by Tricia Elam Walker and illustrated by Ekua Holmes, focuses on a single avenue in a special neighborhood. We get to know this dynamic Black community by getting to know some of the people who live on Dream Street.

    There’s stylish Mr. Sidney, a former mail carrier, who spends his mornings reading the newspaper on his stoop. He “tips his big brown fedora and greets everyone with, ‘Don’t wait to have a great day. Create one.’” There’s quiet Zion, a boy who spends his days in the library working his way through “skyscraper-tall piles of books that take him on adventures around the world.” He dreams of becoming a librarian. The Phillips family has five boys, all named after jazz musicians. On Sundays before church, their father “lines them up on the front porch for inspection, from hats down to shined shoes.”

    Walker’s poetic text dances across the page and Holmes’s striking collage portraits are filled with joy. Simply put, “Dream Street” is a triumph. Like the street itself, this book is a place where a child reader, or any reader, “can become whatever and whoever they want, because their dreams are nourished and cared for.”

    As Rudine Sims Bishop noted in her groundbreaking 1990 article, “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors,” it is powerful and validating to see one’s life and community reflected in a book. But it is just as essential that books provide readers with a glimpse into the lives of others. In the past, these four picture books might have been set aside for young readers who could identify with the characters and communities reflected in the stories. My hope is that today they will be celebrated by all readers.

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