Thursday, August 18, 2011

Book Review: Blackout by John Rocco (2011)

This picture book opens with a full-page illustration of a little girl looking bored, staring out the window. This nameless little girl, who is the youngest in her family, is lonely because everyone is too busy to play with her. Her sister chats on the phone, her mother taps away on the computer, and her father is busy in the kitchen, stirring a pot on the stove. She decides to keep herself company with a video game, but just as she settles in, all the lights go out! From that moment, things change in the little girl's household. In the silence, she and her family huddle together and by the light of candles and flashlights, climb to the roof. The neighbors join in, and soon there is "A block party in the sky" and another one in the street below, where a local business gives away free ice cream, a firefighter allows children to use the fire hydrant as a sprinkler, and a couple plays and sings music.

"No one was busy at all," observes the girl. Everyone has time for her because they are disconnected from their other duties and distractions. Without technology and  electricity to keep them occupied, everyone must turn to one another for entertainment, support, comfort, and enjoyment, a habit one family may just not want to lose even after the blackout is over.

There is very little text in this book, sometimes not even a full sentence on a page. The illustration style really lends itself to comparisons with graphic novels, as it uses a mix of large and small panels, as well as different font faces, sizes, and colors to convey not just narration, but dialogue and sounds as well. The panels show the slow movement of time from moment to moment, and also zoom in and out appropriately to highlight intimate family moments as well as larger community-oriented happenings.

As with many of my favorite illustrators (Marla Frazee and Sophie Blackall, namely), Rocco's pictures give us lots to look at and discover that isn't expressly stated on the page. One of my favorite moments early on in the book occurs when we see the family's apartment building at considerable distance on one page, and then zoom in on their windows more closely on the next. Flipping back and forth between the two pages shows that the same scenes are depicted on each page, just with different levels of focus. I love that the illustrations tell most of the family's story, while the text focuses more on the universality of the blackout experience.

I love the way this story isn't just about what happens during a blackout, but about the way disconnecting technology and electricity for one evening brought a family close together. The illustrations are beautiful - they show how many colors make up the dark - blues, blacks, grays, greens - and how bright even the stars can seem when nothing else is lit up. This would be a great story to have on hand to read to kids during a power outage, and it's also a neat way to share the experience with kids who haven't yet experienced a blackout, especially city kids whose entire lives are lit by streetlamps and store signs. I think this is also a great, positive title for combating fear of the dark, and for empowering younger siblings who often feel left out or inferior. 

Make sure to check out the book, but in the meantime, enjoy this wonderful trailer, which interviews New Yorkers about the major blackout in New York City back in 2003.

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