Ain't Burned All the Bright

[Many Calling Caldecott posts this season will begin with the Horn Book Magazine review of the featured book, followed by the post's author's critique.]


Ain’t Burned All the Bright
by Jason Reynolds; illus. by Jason Griffin
Middle School    Dlouhy/Atheneum    384 pp.    g
1/22    978-1-5344-3946-7    $19.99
e-book ed.  978-1-5344-3947-4    $10.99

Reynolds’s introspective narrative poem, with a young man at home during quarantine as its speaker, shares the stage with Griffin’s emotive collagelike illustrations done in Moleskine notebooks and reproduced on the pages to make it look like a real teen’s journal. The first-person text is presented in three parts, or “breaths.” In “Breath One,” the narrator says he’s “sitting here wondering why / my mother won’t change the channel // And why won’t the news change the story / And why the story won’t change into something new.” Along with concerns about the world outside, he thinks about his father coughing behind closed doors, his sister talking about protests, and his brother lost in video games. When the wonderings get to be too much, the narrator reminds himself to breathe “in through the nose // out through the mouth.” By the end of “Breath Three,” the narrator realizes that his “oxygen mask” for living through this uncertain time is the people he loves and the moments they share. The poem and images create an authentic-sounding adolescent narrator trying to grapple with the confusion and fear of the double pandemic (COVID-19 and systemic racism) he is facing. The book ends with a conversation between the two Jasons about their collaborative process for creating this work during the pandemic. NICHOLL DENICE MONTGOMERY

From the March/April 2022 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.


Ain’t Burned All the Bright is a book that is so well illustrated that it feels like it was handcrafted for each reader. It feels personal. Jason Griffin unifies his illustrations to Jason Reynolds’s words by using a wide variety of media to create a scrapbook style. Collage, typed text, handwritten text, and spray paint are just a few of the things employed to pull us into the head of the narrator.

The images at the beginning, many of which are red and black and bold, immerse the reader in the moment. And the moment is full of fear and worry. Red flames and black silhouettes with only hints of light are effective in creating the anxious state of our narrator. Page after glossy page, we behold the images of worry and concern he has for his family. But then, when he sees the hint of his mother’s laugh that was “like feeding me a teaspoon of we can be ok,” the color palette shifts. More of the blues of the sky are revealed. There is a double-page spread with a neon rainbow and one that shows a swing set, grass, sky, and clouds. The tight, dark images lighten up and give us the feeling of breathing free again. 

Ultimately, the love of his family and their love for one another acts as the “oxygen mask” that keeps the narrator going, and because the illustrations and the words are so well crafted, we feel like ultimately nothing can burn all the bright out of this world, even in dark times.

This book is genre-bending. It works as illustrated poetry, a graphic novel, an extended picture book, a hi-lo reader, a YA novel, and realistic fiction. I’m not sure it even needs to be officially put in one genre camp or another, but its versatility is notable.

Though elementary students are most likely not the audience for this book and though the Caldecott is usually reserved for books for younger readers, I think Ain’t Burned All the Bright could certainly qualify for a Caldecott. You only have to read the Caldecott criteria to see that it ticks off all of the required boxes. Who are its readers? The readership will be wide, beginning with middle schoolers and reaching across multiple generations simply because this is a relatable and exquisitely crafted book.

Lisa Meidl

Lisa Meidl is a librarian who serves kids at Willow Brook Elementary School in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where her chief aim is to convince her students that they all love books and reading. She is also a member of the Equity, Diversity, Inclusion Committee for the Tennessee Association of School Libraries. When she’s not in her school library, she likes to go on the hunt for other libraries. 

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