Night in the City

In a city after dark, the lit windows look warm and interesting. Each one has a story going on behind it. Who are these people? What are they doing? Julie Downing’s Night in the City explores that curiosity visually: some people, like the child in the story, prepare for sleep, but there are lots of other people working.

The dust jacket shows the busy city; however, the hidden cover art beneath is more intimate, featuring two mirrored perspectives from one window. The front cover depicts an adult and child behind the window looking out. The back cover puts the viewer into the room with them, seeing the night through their eyes.

The sun sets in the front endpapers, launching the story with the cool blue cityscape full of glimpses inside glowing windows. Throughout the book, the watercolor and colored-pencil illustrations develop a narrative from the evening routines of a nurse, a baker, a taxi driver, a hotel manager, a firefighter, a film technician, a janitor, a museum security guard, and an emergency dispatcher.

The small scenes on the pages interconnect, and those who spend time tracking the characters will be rewarded when the separate stories of the night begin to fit together. Along with more notable evening events that need attention, including a fire and a lost dog, there are many tiny moments to enjoy. Don’t miss the security guard making shadow puppets on the wall with his flashlight! This whirlwind of activity requires skill to wrangle, and Downing’s exceptional use of color and composition enable the book to excel beyond its intricate details.

The contrasting yellows and blues create a visual energy that moves the story from page to page at an engagingly varied pace. The blue denotes the still of the night, but the yellows and other pops of bright color show where the action is. Sometimes a whole spread or panel is a burst of yellow, but other times, the yellow is merely the beam of a flashlight in the blue. The art teaches the eye to find the light to move the narrative forward.

Smart page composition merges the disparate evening routines so they function as a whole. A double-page spread introduces the main cast of characters getting ready for work via a cross section of two neighboring apartment buildings. A slice of night sky between the two buildings runs through the center, showing blue balconies and lines of laundry. The nurse reaches through to get his socks off the line while the security guard waters window-box plants. Another cross-section spread shows their evening commute on the street, the sidewalk, and the subway. The main characters stand out in color among the other people cast blue with the evening background. Interrupting these heavily detailed scenes, an occasional dramatic double-page spread creates a visual reprieve — a place to pause and recognize the importance of the evening shift. On one such spread, the janitor at the museum gently dusts the nose of an enormous dinosaur skeleton while the security guard passes by. On another, a new baby is born during the nurse’s shift at the hospital. 

Periodically, the illustrations check back in on the sleeping child to whom the text is loosely directed. This is the nurse’s own child, and at the end, the two greet each other again with the sunrise. The night workers are off duty. The final endpapers return to the beginning scene, this time flooded with the light of day. Some of the window coverings are now closed.

There is so much to analyze and consider in this special picture book with its distinguished use of color and composition to tell a story, broaden our perspective, and convey the details so worthy of notice that we might otherwise miss. Here’s hoping the 2024 Caldecott Committee has the most magical time with this year’s books — noticing, discussing, and appreciating the many ways art can tell a story.

[Read The Horn Book Magazine review of Night in the City]

Julie Roach

Julie Roach

Julie Roach, chair of the 2020 Caldecott Committee, is the collection development manager for the Boston Public Library.  

Be the first reader to comment.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing.