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Blue Sky, White Stars

At first glance, readers might mistake Blue Sky, White Stars for a patriotic picture book that’s primarily about the Fourth of July. Although it does include this holiday, the book delivers much more. It presents a multi-layered, complex, inclusive, expansive, and timely depiction of America through highlighting different features of the flag.

On the cover image, a multiracial gathering of awe-struck adults and children gaze up at the skies. Illustrator Kadir Nelson strategically places a sparkling clue that will reveal the object of their fascination to observant readers. In contrast to the spectacle before them, the backdrop features a peaceful, star-studded deep blue night sky with the title, in a capitalized, touchable raised white font, set against the blue. One would not guess, from the small American flag held by a little brown-skinned boy watching the festivities from atop his father’s shoulders, that this emblem of America’s freedom will figure so prominently inside the book. The back-cover image is a mirrored, silhouette of the crowd on the front cover; above their heads appears the full, spectacular fireworks display. Though the crowd is in darkness, one item remains illuminated: the small flag held by the boy.

It is often the case that text and illustrations, read together, yield richer results than being read separately; this holds especially true of Blue Sky, White Stars. Moreover, Nelson’s illustrations do not just illuminate but in fact transform Sarvinder Naberhaus’s spare text, which ostensibly describes the physical and symbolic features of the flag. The words on the right page of each spread either repeat or echo (through homophones) those on the left page, but the illustrations shift the focus to make clear connections between the colors and elements of the flag and the beauty it represents — beauty in the natural landscapes and in the wide range of people who inhabit it. For instance, on one spread, the text says “red rows” on both sides of the page, but the left page features a row of trees with bright red leaves, set starkly against a fresh New England or Midwestern snow, while the right page shows a close-up of a horizontal red stripe mid-page, with a white stripe above and below. The uneven shadows that run diagonally across the flag suggest its motion, perhaps due to a gusty wind, juxtaposed against the stillness and peace of the wintry scene. It seems appropriate that Nelson chose a brighter red for the leaves than he did for the deep russet of the flag stripe because the brilliance of maples in the fall can startle and leave you breathless, while the russet brings to mind the blood spilled to ensure that the flag continues to represent freedom in America.

“Woven together” appears on a later double-page spread. On a literal level, this refers to the stitched fabrics of the flag carried by a multiracial group of marchers while they hold hands, arms crossed, and sing as they protest. In the background, readers can see Civil Rights signs and the very tip of the Washington Monument, identifying this as not just any march but the 1963 March on Washington. In the foreground, readers see Black and White marchers of different ages, an impressive array that includes military personnel, clergy, and regular folks. Just as the natural landscapes appear every few pages, so too does Nelson’s persistent capturing of individual faces of Americans with skin tones in all colors, varying facial features and hairstyles, and minute differences that make each face unique. This balanced treatment between nature and humans suggests that each person is just as integral to the United States as are the red maples and the sea waves. But it’s always good to consider omissions when looking at an expansive cultural representation like this one. Nelson references westward expansion through a long line of covered wagons, driving over the prairie, with no counternarrative of the Native Americans who already lived on those lands and the other landscapes featured throughout the book.

Despite this, Blue Sky, White Stars, which consists of only 28 words across 36 pages, highlights an impressive array of settings and topics, touching on education, the space program, military service (especially by people of color), sports, social justice, the office of the president, the Statue of Liberty, the role of women in the establishment of the United States, immigration, diversity, and the stunning beauty of the American landscape from coast to coast.

Readers who usually skip the author and illustrator notes should take a moment to read these. Naberhaus’s individual narrative of what this country means to her echoes Nelson’s careful attention to individual facial features in his illustrations; Nelson’s story of his artistic journey with this text highlights the themes of freedom and patriotism so resonant in this book. Nelson also notes: “I hope this work will always remind us that our ever-evolving country was forged by — and for — people from all walks of life and every background, and that our future as a nation hinges on Abraham Lincoln’s enduring admonition that ‘a house divided against itself cannot stand.’” This is a message worth repeating often, especially at this moment in American history. And because the marriage between text and illustrations in this picture book so powerfully encapsulates what freedom in America means, White Stars, Blue Sky speaks to the present while it looks backward and, in so doing, reaches forward.

This is one to watch.

Read the Horn Book Guide review of Blue Sky White Stars.

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Dr. Michelle H. Martin and J. Elizabeth Mills About Dr. Michelle H. Martin and J. Elizabeth Mills

Dr. Michelle H. Martin, pictured here, is the Beverly Cleary Professor for Children & Youth Services in the Information School at the University of Washington in Seattle. J. Elizabeth Mills is a doctoral candidate at the University of Washington Information School and a children’s book author.

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Comments

  1. “It presents a multi-layered, complex, inclusive, expansive, and timely depiction of America through highlighting different features of the flag.”

    Fantastic framing of another supreme masterpiece from Nelson, that well deserves the strongest consideration from the Caldecott committee. From the very first glistening page of the Statue of Liberty, that would make a great reference point for any review of this year’s HER RIGHT FOOT, we get a highly original and thoughtful interpretation of the flag as it applies to the melting pot of America, and the diversity of race, geography, education, leisure, technological advancement and the civil rights movement as a defining event in our maturation as a nation. The book is somber, reflective and celebratory. The greatest of all Americans, Abraham Lincoln, is shown as one worn out, but shown here as Stanton rightly likened him “Now he belongs to the ages.”

    2017 is another astonishingly competitive year, but it is hard to imagine this stirring and poignant treasure (and yes I couldn’t agree more about what you say about the particular effectiveness of reading the spare and harrowing text while partaking the spectacular images) not ending up as one of the committee’s final selections.

    Thank you Dr. Michelle H. Martin and J. Elizabeth Mills for this magisterial Caldecott qualification essay. It has colored my own hugely favorable opinion of the book to an even higher level of appreciation.

  2. Amanda Lepper says:

    Super proud of our Ames author, Sarvinder Naberhaus, and so happy Horn recognizes the beauty of this book in both word and picture. But please note Sarvinder is a woman — you reference “him” in the final full paragraph.

  3. Susan Dailey says:

    Thanks for the great review and all the details you pointed out. It’s hard for me to objectively evaluate Kadir Nelson’s books because I LOVE his realistic style. I’m in awe of his talent! The spread that really impressed me in this book is the man who’s listening to the baseball game on the radio. I showed it to a colleague and commented that it’s hard not to think it’s a photo. She said, “Of course, it’s a photo.” I had to work to convince her it wasn’t. And Lincoln’s face…Wow! I hope you are right, Sam, and that “Blue Sky White Stars” ends of sporting a medal.

  4. Martha V. Parravano Martha V. Parravano says:

    Amanda, thank you for bringing the error to our attention — it’s now been fixed. Our apologies to Ms. Naberhaus!

  5. Nelson is long, long, long overdue for nabbing the Medal and not an honor.

    Honestly, I think this book is his crowning achievement. There are many gasp-worthy moments throughout. The folds of the American flag, the close-up of Lincoln’s face, and (my personal favorite) the veteran sitting on the porch with the young boy. That image alone is Caldecott-worthy. The composition, the attention to detail (the reflection in the sunglasses!), and the use of texture bring the image to life. The veteran looks like he could walk off the page.

    One of the things I’ve always loved about Nelson is that you can *see* his artistry. Look closely, and there’s the canvas under the paint strokes. Intentional or not, this makes his art distinctly human to me. There’s no computer behind his images. This is *art*.

    Blue Sky is definitely in my top three.

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