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All Different Now: Juneteenth, the First Day of Freedom

johnson_all different nowI have written about and talked about this book a lot elsewhere, so it seems time to put my finger on why the Caldecott committee should take a close look at All Different Now.

Before I start, I want to dispel a myth I hear a lot. It goes something like this: this is really a Coretta Scott King Award book, so the Caldecott committee will figure it will win there and might not pay much attention to it. NO. NO. NO. That’s not how it goes.

The Caldecott committee is not allowed to think or talk like that. It doesn’t work like that. When I was on Caldecott, Dave the Potter was honored by both committees. Each committee works independently of the other. I know because I have been lucky enough to serve on both the Caldecott and the CSK committees. So, I would never be surprised to see this book (or any eligible title) honored by both. It should happen more often, actually, that a book is honored by a number of committees. Though each committee has its own manual and criteria (and here I am talking about every committee, whether it’s part of the American Library Association or not), every committee is hoping to identify the best book, best art, best story of the year. I am thinking of the year Steve Sheinkin’s Bomb won in a gazillion categories: I wanted the wealth to be spread, but understood how it happened that one book pleased so many constituencies. So to repeat, there is no communication between the committees. And on the Monday morning when the awards are announced, everyone in the room is surprised (or disappointed) at the same time.

On to All Different Now. Angela Johnson and E.B. Lewis have created something special here. For those of you who might not know, Juneteenth refers to the anniversary of the day that slaves in Texas heard the news that the Civil War had ended and that slavery had been abolished. Plantation owners kept the information away from their slaves, and Union soldiers had trouble getting into Texas to tell them. Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, on June 19th 1865; hence the moniker Juneteenth. The excellent back matter tells the reader everything that was probably skipped in American history classes.

But this is not a history book; this is a story imagining how people reacted to the news that they were finally free, that things were “all different now.” Lewis’s painterly style is perfect for this story. Using a child narrator, Johnson and Lewis tell the story of the news of Emancipation spreading from the port to the town to the country and to the fields in one stunning paneled spread. Look closely at the astonished faces of the women, the suspicious looks from the men, and the jubilant body motions of the people in the cotton field. Lewis and Johnson imagine the feelings: anger, jubilation, confusion, gratitude, frustration. Somehow Lewis is able to paint all those feelings. He also shows how strong the family is in the story: at the beginning we see the children warm under a quilt and next we see a mother or sister taking care of the children. Everyone, from one-hundred-year-old Mr. Jake to the baby in Aunt Laura’s arms, is cared for; everyone understands the seriousness of the news they have just received.

Lewis’s watercolors use color and tone to tell this story. Muted greens and browns tell the story of the first half of the book; a more hopeful blue enters at the halfway point. The white of the beach pushes away the brown of the field, and the girls’ white dresses pop against the night sky and the burning fire. The night scenes are somber.

I love the final spread, where the only words are “all different now.” The little houses are closed up and the people are leaving. For what? To go where? The text does not reveal where they are going, allowing the reader to imagine herself into the story.

I return to the cover often. The outstretched arms of so many women (and one man) give me a little chill. And sometimes a little chill is all it takes for someone to champion a book. I would champion this one, if I were on the committee.

 

Robin Smith About Robin Smith

Robin Smith is a second-grade teacher at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee. She is a reviewer for Kirkus and The Horn Book Magazine and has served on multiple award committees.

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Comments

  1. Can’t comment on the book, but just want to say THANK YOU ROBIN for the second and third paragraphs. You are right on the money with that point.

  2. Though I do not own this book, I have seen it and have nothing but the highest regard for Lewis’ previous work with Johnson and Jacqueline Woodson. Robin, I salute you for bringing well-deserved attention to this beautiful book, especially since the early-in-the-year release may have gotten it lost in the shuffle. The final spread is indeed ravishing and the muted watercolors are exquisite. Beautifully written and passionate review!

    As to the specifications you have posed I do know them myself, and realize that each committee works separately. In any event there is some spirited universal appeal here.

  3. Post-script to my first comment above: My own copy of this book arrived in my mailbox yesterday. Though I had seen it earlier in the year on library loan, I did not appreciate it much as I did today. It is quite simply one of the most extraordinarily beautiful books of this or any other year. No wonder Robin is passionately calling on the committee to take a hard look at it. The cover remains one of the best of the year, but there is so much more. As you say it is not a history book, but a documentation of exultation. Hence this is also one of the most emotional books of the year. Lewis is one of the greats, and his collaboration here with Ms. Johnson does move mountains. By any barometer of measurement this is one of the banner achievements, and a double dip (CSK and Caldecott is warranted. i even like that ravishing cotton field spread more than any in the still-sublime Caldecott Honor book WORKING COTTON. I loved Robin’s review on first read–now I love it even more.

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