The World Belonged to Us

[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.]

 

The World Belonged to Us
by Jacqueline Woodson; illus. by Leo Espinosa
Primary    Paulsen/Penguin    32 pp.    g
5/22    978-0-399-54549-8    $18.99
e-book ed.  978-0-399-54550-4    $10.99
Spanish ed.  978-0-593-53019-1    $18.99

This lyrical paean to unstructured play does not wax nostalgic or hark back to a simpler time. Rather, Woodson sets out to capture (and brilliantly succeeds in it) a feeling and a moment. She starts off, “In Brooklyn / in the summer / not so long ago,” and tells readers that “the minute / school ended, us kids were as free as air. / Free as sun. Free as summer.” While their grownups are busy inside the apartment buildings above, the neighborhood kids spend the long, hot days playing on the city streets. Open hydrants are converted into super squirters, games are invented and mastered, conflicts are collectively resolved, and scraped knees tended. It’s a time of endless possibility. “Our block was the whole wide world / and the world belonged to us,” at least until their mothers call them home for dinner. Espinosa’s kinetic pen-and-ink and watercolor art captures a cadre of kids in perpetual motion — biking, jumping rope, building forts, shooting bottle caps, playing stickball — and conveys unbridled joy and mutual respect and admiration. This book reminds readers that the benefits of free play, independence, and being excited about what each day may hold can extend beyond a Brooklyn block one summer to a lifetime of creative possibility. Simultaneously published in Spanish as El mundo era nuestro, translated by Yanitzia Canetti. LUANN TOTH

From the July/August 2022 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

Unabashed joy emanates from The World Belonged to Us, written by Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by Leo Espinosa. Just look at the front endpapers: a smiling sun, smiling children, hopscotch, basketball hoops, and jump rope. And proceed from those drawn-by-children (probably with sidewalk chalk) images to the title page and Espinosa’s Brooklyn city street brimming with a diverse cast of children buying ice cream, playing in the sprinkler, flicking double-dutch ropes, sitting on stoops, and leaning out apartment windows.

Do you know kids who play like that anymore, kids allowed to just go out and play? I remember playing kickball in the street and wandering the creeks and woods behind my house and making go-carts to fly (we thought) down the hills. As long as we were home for meals and within earshot of parents, we were allowed to be on our own.

Jacqueline Woodson told me, “It truly saddens me that so many kids don’t play like that anymore. I was first inspired when I saw some kids on my block jumping rope. This man approached (businessman — all suited and cranky coming home from work) and glared at them until they stopped turning and let him pass. In my childhood grownups would get off the sidewalk and walk in the streets so that the kids could continue playing (which is what I still do).”

So, this is Woodson’s ode to a childhood summer like hers, a written and visual reminiscence of a time not so long ago, related with exuberance and wry humor. That humor begins right off the bat. When their mamas holler, “Don’t get your school clothes wet!” the kids do just that, running through the hydrant water “because our teachers’ final words had been ‘Have a good summer.’ Our only plan on that last day of school was to take what they said seriously.” And in the very next scene, the little girl with hair twisted into “spiraling curls” by her mother finds her hair springing back into natural coils once she hit the spray of the fire hydrant. “Because it was finally summer / and hair too / had a right to be free.”

I emphasize words in my writing about a Caldecott contender because I love the interplay of words and illustrations. I think this interplay is what makes a great picture book. I think truly great picture books have a memorable text as well as memorable art, and they work together to tell a complete story. Look at those illustrations of children shooting bottle caps across chalk-drawn skully boards; building forts; playing kick the can and steal the bacon and tag and ringolevio and hide-and-seek. Look at the older boy recounting the time he got hurt and cried, and look at the faces of the children listening to his story — open-mouthed amazement, tears, one person calling to others, as if saying, “Come on over, you’ve got to hear this!” And the little girl near the end of the book, standing tall, facing the reader, hands cupped around her mouth, calling to friends. It feels as if she is, just maybe, calling to us the readers to pull us into her joy — that’s my favorite image. Espinosa’s child-centered, child-friendly art that seems sketch-y and simple is anything but. He is, after all, an artist from Colombia, and here he is bringing to life a 1970s NYC streetscape and making it real and lively and appealing. His illustrations and Woodson’s poetic writing are a magical match.

I have read this book aloud several times and have bought many copies to give away, including to my three-year-old granddaughter (photo at right). Before long, after hearing the story, she was chanting, “In Brooklyn / in the summer / not so long ago.” What reader and listener would not be enchanted by Espinosa’s diverse cast of children smiling and laughing and playing in the Brooklyn streets he has so memorably re-created!

Dean Schneider

Dean Schneider teaches eighth grade English at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee.

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