I'm From

This was the year when one picture book creator after another gave us a glimpse of the neighborhood that informed the writer or illustrator within, including Raúl the Third’s exuberant ¡Vamos! Let’s Go Read, in which an entire Mexican American community celebrates books and literacy with bilingual abandon, and Margarita Engle’s Water Day, where a Cuban neighborhood looks forward to the water man's delivery of fresh water for every living thing. Olivia Sua’s tropical scenes transport readers as the quiet message of conservation trickles sweetly over the pages.

I’m From, written by Gary R. Gray, Jr., joins these titles with glee. Collaborating on the work with uncanny synchronicity is Oge Mora, who in both color and form turns a boy’s shy stabs at Black identity into a larger anthem of family, ancestors, culture, love, and universal belonging. It’s a neighborhood no one can resist.

In the book, a young Black boy wakes up, eats breakfast, endures a “looooong school day,” makes an afterschool trip to the corner store, and returns back to home and family. In her Horn Book Magazine review, Monique Harris says, “While describing a seemingly ordinary routine, the lyrical text is a journey through Black language and culture, evoking a sense of identity, community, and connectedness."

First, let’s teach children to open up books flat so they can see the front and back jacket as one entire spread! Mora shows the never-named narrator in flight, soaring over a cityscape as high as a sun-moon amalgam; below, a tiny figure chases a missed bus while a blue-lined notebook paper stands in for a less-than-stellar school day and invasive questions: “Can I touch your hair?" "Where are you from?” These words show up in the pictures, in the colors of tissue-paper stained glass, and because the narrator is an artist, lose their power by becoming seamlessly worked into mixed-media collage.

Every subsequent spread shows small scenes of family chaos and coziness as the child’s day ticks by, from rising to sleep, every action described on lined paper as if part of a kid’s essay. As Gray’s pacing grows urgent and the child seeks the solace of home after school, Mora grounds the family in domesticity before opening up the scenes to grand dreams beyond this Earth. Front and back endpapers remind onlookers that the narrator (or writer) and the illustrator may have laid the paths of their future in blocky scribbles on a page.

Yes, it’s an anthem, but the reason Caldecott should be calling is that I’m From is also a template; there are as many versions of the book as there are children in the world. By handing out keys to the secret of belonging, Gray’s profoundly childlike words and Mora’s iridescent scenes teach a brand of storytelling that allows every child to dream of a future, right from the neighborhood, right from home.

[Read The Horn Book Magazine review of I'm From]

Kimberly Fakih

Kimberly Fakih is a Senior Editor, Picture Books, at School Library Journal.

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