Stars of the Night

The cover of Stars of the Night: The Courageous Children of the Czech Kindertransport, written by Caren Stelson and illustrated by Selina Alko, immediately grabs viewers' attention with its somber and quite heartbreaking image of children looking through the window of a bus, their faces solemn. Who are they waving to, so joylessly? It's a cover that urges readers to open the book, to learn the story behind the image. 

The book begins: “Czechoslovakia 1938. When we were seven or eight or nine or ten, our home was the old city of Prague.” The collective "we," the 669 children sent to England to be saved from deportation by the Nazis, tell their story. Before the war, “we skated on the rivers...We slurped hot cocoa and buried our noses in whipped cream.” This ever-so-ordinary childhood is interrupted: “Prague was everyone’s peaceful home until it wasn’t.” The beauty of Stelson’s text comes from the small childlike details and the shared voice of confused, sad, desperately lonely, and enormously brave children. “We grew up. We made new homes. We started new jobs. We found hope and courage.” The opening endpaper features a startlingly beautiful sun, rising over a collection of homes created from textured and painted papers, burlap, and the spiral binding of a notebook. Painted on the bright yellow sun are the heads of many adults, the mothers and fathers who were the warmth and light, the center of the universe for the Czech children narrators. Alko’s illustrations are layered with paint and colored pencil often over cut- and torn-paper scraps. For her painting of families picnicking along the river, Alko uses scraps of recipes in the background. A German postal label becomes part of the train station. Alko’s human figures have a flat, almost folk-art style, and the layers of paint and textured papers add depth. Some figures and objects float on the page, making visual the confusion and disquiet felt by the children of the Kindertransport. The ground is not always solid under their feet as children are loaded, by loving, grieving parents, onto trains to England. Gray, green, and black dominate the art during the war years, but Alko uses the bright yellow throughout as the children hang onto the love of their parents and use it to light their futures. The final endpapers, the night sky dotted with constellations, bring Stelson and Alko’s theme to a close. These constellations are the heads, once again, of parents, murdered by the Nazis but still sparkling in the memories and lives of their children and grandchildren. The balance of text and art is powerful, with each supporting the other to create what is a moving and very effective story filled with sadness and ultimately hope.

Will the Caldecott committee give this book a look? It certainly seems to embody the Caldecott's criterion of excellence, of the quality of "distinction," in this aspect: "delineation of plot, theme, characters, setting, mood or information through the pictures." Thoughts?

[Read the Horn Book Magazine review of Stars of the Night]

Maeve Visser Knoth

Maeve Visser Knoth is a librarian at Phillips Brooks School, Menlo Park, ­California. She has chaired the Notable Children’s Books Committee and taught at Notre Dame de Namur University and Lesley University.

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