All Because You Matter

There are many ways one could enter this (singular, spectacular, heartstopping) book, but I can’t imagine starting anywhere other than with the face on the cover. Has a book jacket ever boasted an image so strong, so tender, or so radiant? A portrait of a young boy’s face is encompassed by shingled collage petal shapes, set against a celestial background. Illustrator Bryan Collier describes the faces that appear in the petals as “the voices of ancestors chanting: ‘You matter,’” and with each individual jot of the boy’s head of hair, the slight asymmetry of his face, the delicately captured philtrum, and the shadows on his neck, Collier joins that chorus.

Maybe it’s a consequence of lingering over these illustrations for so long, but I see their creation play out in a stop-motion film. It all starts with one indigo blue, star-studded petal, then a few more, and then the little pile of petals splaying out as if blossoming. The cut-paper petals overlap with each other more and more until the endpapers become a deep night sky. A flash of white across the sky — a shooting star — signals the birth of a baby.

On the pages that anticipate the child’s birth, the petals continue to shift. After filling the dark sky behind the expectant parents, the petals are swept together in bright, bold piles and then spread onto a work surface, where they are assembled into a collage by three sets of hands. We see eyes, noses, and lips on the petals, faces suggested by the text: “Long before you took your place in this world, you were dreamed of, like a knapsack full of wishes, carried on the backs of your ancestors.”

These collages — which, Collier explains in his illustrator’s note, connect directly to the influence of his grandmother, a quilt-maker who helped raise him — continue to transform and visually narrate the story of the ancestors who underpin this child and the value of his life. As the baby learns to walk, they take on the gentle, swirling pattern of the wallpaper in his nursery. When the boy finds someone who looks like him in a book, they rise up, almost translucent, like steam off the pages. As he grows and endures troubles that threaten his sense of self-worth — being made fun of, getting bad grades, and ultimately hearing news of other Black children being murdered — the petals literally support him, forming the carpet beneath him and the walls behind him. Late in the book, that support is visually mirrored by living people, holding hands and encircling the boy and his parents. We’re invited to see ourselves in the petals, to consider the responsibilities we all have to care for each other.

When I share this book with young children, a question that often comes up is: “Do I matter?” This is followed by a clarification: “Do I matter like that?” The students are responding to the inarguable depth of the heritage, the love that is shown visually to precede and follow this child. The rich and poetic text of this book provides, in author Tami Charles’s words, a “starting point for conversations about the racial climate in our country today,” but it’s through Collier’s watercolor and collage masterpieces that the book becomes a visual experience that communicates the essence of mattering, particularly how the life of this Black boy matters. 

[Read the Horn Book Magazine review of All Because You Matter here]

When I think about the Caldecott criteria addressing "excellence in presentation to a child audience," I can’t help but think of a moment with my students in a meeting of our mock Caldecott committee when, reading this book and noticing that time was running short, I picked up the pace and ended up rushing the page that reads, "Did you know that you were born from queens, chiefs, legends? Did you know that you are the earth? That strength, power, and beauty lie within you?" As I promptly flipped the page — the one that holds the cover image — to finish the book in time, a child piped up, “Can we stop here? Those are the most powerful words I’ve ever heard.” I asked him to say more, and he said, shocked that I needed any more explanation, “‘You were born from legends? You are the earth? I mean, that’s pretty powerful!” Then another child chimed in to build on this, connecting the collage in the background to this text by saying, “And I see the people who came before him backing him up.”

But the criterion that always feels the weightiest to me is the one enjoining "excellence in pictorial interpretation of story, theme, or concept." The way that All Because You Matter fulfills and soars above this criterion feels like something out of a Caldecott dream. Thinking about the urgency this particular subject holds and imagining a generation of readers taking in this "pictorial interpretation" of what it is for a Black boy to matter affirms my immeasurable belief in what a picture book can achieve. I hope the Caldecott committee will recognize the visual triumph this book has achieved — and is achieving with each member of its audience that is seeing it at this critical moment — and, at last, award Bryan Collier his first Caldecott Medal. 

 

Emily Prabhaker
Emily Prabhaker
Emily Prabhaker is the librarian at Campus School of Smith College.
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Dean Schneider

Emily, thank you for such a thoughtful, insightful, and passionate post that will nudge us all to look more closely at this amazing book. (My wife, Robin Smith, went to Smith College, by the way!)

Posted : Dec 14, 2020 08:31

Emily Prabhaker

Dear Dean, Thank you so much for your kind words and also for your beautiful post. I didn't know that about Robin but am glad to now. One of my favorite moments during the mock caldecott unit I was leading with my second grade class this year, was when we had Megan Lambert as a guest speaker to talk to us about what it is like to be on an actual Caldecott Committee. One of the children asked Megan who the best friend was that she had made on the committee, and Megan spoke so lovingly of Robin and with such genuine affection and fondness that it was something we all remembered.

Posted : Dec 14, 2020 08:31


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