December 31, 2009


Night Lights. By Susan Gal. Knopf. $14.99.

Who Will I Be, Lord? By Vaunda Micheaux Nelson. Illustrated by Sean Qualls. Random House. $16.99.

     Young children thinking about the year ahead – or just the next day – will find a lot to consider in these two books. Night Lights is a simple bedtime story for ages 3-6 – but it is also more. With very few words and many dark-hued illustrations, Susan Gal shows all the ways the world gets light, in little bits here and there, after the sun goes down. The book starts with a mother and daughter bicycling home from wherever they have been, the headlights on their bikes and the streetlights along the road throwing patches of brightness onto an otherwise dark and quiet scene. At their house, there are bits of light everywhere, and the naming of those lights constitutes the only text in the book: firelight, candlelight, reading light, flashlight and more – even lightning! (with an exclamation point) that causes mom, daughter and their dog to run inside. The repetition of the word “light,” in so many contexts, creates a kind of background hum that makes this book very restful to read to a young child. It also invites quiet thoughtfulness about what went on during the day and what the next day will bring, as the child in the book falls peacefully asleep by moonlight.

     The wondering is more verbal than pictorial in Vaunda Micheaux Nelson’s Who Will I Be, Lord? Intended for slightly older kids – ages 4-8 – this is a book focused on the African-American experience, with a little girl thinking back over her family history and trying to figure out what it implies for her own future. She thinks of her great-grandfather, a mailman and musician whose own grandfather had been a slave; and of her great-grandmother, who “mama’d five children and made the best cakes in the county” – and who was white, and was disowned by her parents for marrying a black man. She thinks of her grandfather, a preacher, and her grandmother, a teacher; her uncle, a pool shark; her cousin, a jazzman; and her own parents, a car repair man and stay-at-home mom. As she thinks of each person, she contemplates what their lives are like and wonders about her own future, almost as in the refrain of a poem: “My grampa is a preacher. And what will I be, Lord? What will I be?” Of course, she is far too young to know for sure what she will become, and there is no answer to her repeated questions by the end of book, by which time “what will I be?” has turned into “who will I be?” But the little girl realizes that what and who she is as an adult is up to her – that is the lesson of her family and her history, as well as her parents’ teaching. This is a nicely contemplative book that, although told strictly from an African-American perspective and unlikely to have widespread appeal outside its target group, will give little girls who can relate to the narrator something to think about as they consider the many role models around them and the ones in their own families’ past.

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