During the last year (and more), I've found it wearying to hear well-intentioned variations on the theme of glass half full, silver-lined clouds, and windows opening when doors are slammed shut. And I'm an innately optimistic person. My reaction is likely related to decades of such blind-eyed denial of climate change, so many long months of Covid, followed by ongoing hostile arguments about rights versus responsibilities. Even the most sincere, big-hearted efforts to appreciate "the upside of down" can develop a hollow, off-pitch ring. That's why I'm excited to recommend this new nonfiction picture book.
|Tilbury House Publishers, 2021|
Lyrical text empowers SMOKE as a character, making it the first person narrator of its own story. That voice reclaims credit for the many ways SMOKE offers benefits to mind, body, soul, and nature while admitting that those benefits contradict more common negative smoke associations that dominate our collective consciousness.
This is certainly a rare subject to explore through personification and SMOKE is itself an entity that we rarely consider through a positive lens. That is the first of several ways in which this remarkable book seizes our attention and never lets it go. Travis Jonker, school librarian and author of picture books and the popular blog 100 SCOPE NOTES for School Library Journal, included this book among titles he designated as THE MOST ASTONISHINGLY UNCONVENTIONAL BOOKS OF 2021.
Kirkus Starred Review is HERE, and this title was included in Kirkus's list of 150 Most Anticipated Fall Books HERE.
The fluid, translucent, and nearly hypnotic qualities of smoke are captured effectively with few words, directly addressing the reader, and ensnare our attention. The opening lines tap into prehistoric emotional connections:
"I am smoke.
I twirl in dark dance from every campfire."
A page turn allows SMOKE to proceed, for a few lines and images, with a concise but accessible explanation of what SMOKE actually is, how it is created, and how it moves. In the following double spreads, a left-page, riddle-like line or two crack open our assumptions, with slightly expanded text on the right page revealing some of the many ways that each riddle/challenge can be answered. Both halves of the call/response pattern are displayed on evocative, emotionally-toned, double page illustrations that transport readers around the world, across cultures, time, and experiences. These explorations are as scientifically and historically accurate as that chemical-structured opening, and yet they convey an almost spiritual or meditative quality to the narration.
I can't say enough about the power and particularity of each response/spread, not only in making clear the ways in which SMOKE has served our planet and our people over time, but does so with a remarkable portrayal of SMOKE itself. I realized on every page that I could virtually smell SMOKE, only to read in other sources that the illustrator actually used smoke and flame and ash to create the original art throughout. Of course, that wouldn't transfer the scent of SMOKE to the printed media, and yet it somehow did. For an impressive preview of the art, check out this brief trailer from Tilbury House Publishers, HERE.
The added benefit to this already outstanding picture book for many ages is that several pages of back matter provide brief but thorough explanations of each declaration SMOKE makes within the main text. In addition, sources are listed to allow further study or verification of the reliability of the statements that might surprise adult readers, and will likely do so even more with young readers.
Speaking of target ages, I can't close out this post without commending this new picture book as a great example as mentor text for established readers. I AM SMOKE could provide an innovative impetus for doing research and non-fiction writing on other topics. Not only would this inspire expansion of sources, seeking examples across cultures, time, and global settings, but such a pattern presents a useful tool for identifying the pros/cons of various natural forces (fire, wind, rain, erosion, currents, etc.) It is also a model for writing to inform and to affect readers' opinions beyond the traditional essay/persuasive writing form. In fact, it is a rich resource for writing craft and figurative language in any form or genre.
Get on it, folks. Contact your library (community and school libraries) to make sure they stock it for circulation. Purchase copies for your family, classrooms, and as gifts. This is one book you may loan, but will want to replace when it somehow is not returned. I am not alone in singing its praises, and I'm guessing that you'll join the chorus once you have a close look and read.