It’s rare to see picture books that address squalor or anything just short of it. One could argue that children from families with significant economic disadvantages would prefer to read books of escapism. Yet at the same time, as has been addressed and discussed so often in the field of children’s literature, particularly in the past several years, those same children may also want to see their lives in the books they read. We often talk about the need for mirrors in children’s and young adult books in terms of skin color. “When children,” wrote Rudine Sims Bishop in 1990, “cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part.” What about the mirrors reflecting class issues too?
Two brand-new picture books—Jairo Buitrago’s Walk with Me, illustrated by Rafael Yockteng, and Piotr Parda’s Graduation Day—address living conditions on the more derelict side of things and, in the case of Walk with Me, a child living in poverty. This is so unusual to see in the world of glossy, bright American picture books, many depicting a solidly middle-class world, that these two books got my attention fast.
Walk with Me is an import and was originally published to acclaim as Camino a casa in 2008. It’s brought to readers by the same duo that wrote and illustrated 2012’s Jimmy the Greatest! It’s even translated into English by the same woman who translated Jimmy, Elisa Amado, and it will be on shelves this month. It’s the story of a young girl who is accompanied by a lion on her way home from school. The lion, who adores the girl, never bothers anyone but clearly frightens the people in town who see him. At the end of her day, the girl slides into bed, knowing her lion will come again when she calls for him. She looks over at a picture on the bed-side table, which features her and her brother with their father, who has golden, mane-like hair. Her father is nowhere to be seen and, for reasons unknown to the reader, doesn’t live in her home.
That’s it for the plot of this tender story. But it’s everything that happens in the book’s middle and everything you see on the girl’s journey home that are remarkable in terms of class issues. She lives in a town with a factory spitting visible pollution into the air; her school, as well as the apartment buildings and homes she passes in town, have clearly seen better days; she stops at a store that “won’t give us credit anymore,” the lion scaring the store clerk so badly, she successfully gets bags full of groceries for her family; and we see, once she arrives home and makes it inside, that the furnishings are spare to say the least. This is a family that makes little money.
The girl’s mother is bedraggled in that specific way poverty can wear down one’s spirit. When “Mama gets home from the factory,” she hangs her head low and trudges along – all after a long day of what was most likely hard, physical labor. When the girl, her brother, and her mother go to sleep in one big bed later that night, the wall behind them is cracked. On the final spread, if you look closely, you’ll see a newspaper with a headline that reads in Spanish what I think is “Families of Missing 1985.”
Though she lives in poverty and is daily on her own (at least until she picks up her baby brother), it’s the thought of the girl’s father, wherever he may be, that brings her comfort and helps her feel secure. In this way, she transcends her troubles. The sunny yellow flower next to her father’s picture, the brightest part of Yockteng’s palette here, is so much sunshine in a world with its fair share of struggle.
Piotr Parda’s Graduation Day is the wordless story of a young grad. (Perhaps it’s graduation from kindergarten.) We see a girl looking out the school window, smiling. She’s all decked out in her cap and gown. But this is after we see some spreads of a rather colorless, dilapidated school, also with cracks in both the walls and pavement the building sits on.
The girl is bullied. A group of sneering fellow grads spit a seed at her through a straw. It may sting her neck, but she just looks down, retrieves it, and puts it in her pocket. Graduation then commences, covering many of the next spreads.
Then comes the metamorphosis. At the close of the story, the girl opens her locker to grab a jar filled with seeds, ones we assume have been spat upon her all year as the object of derision she seems to be. She plants one of these seeds outside between two slabs of aging concrete. Green sprouts appears, followed by a field of gorgeous yellow flowers—Parda really takes his time here in these closing illustrations, which we assume spans months or even years—until eventually the entire school is surrounded by luminous, radiant flowers. On the very last spread, Parda gives us an aerial view: We see a sea of run-down, grey buildings, save for the brilliant yellow in the center.
The girl took her pain and turned it to good, just as the young protagonist in Walk with Me does. This, as well as both books’ willingness to bring readers children in poverty (or at least not in shiny, suburban worlds), brings to my mind the most beautiful, memorable line in the 2016 Newbery winner Matt de la Peña’s and Christian Robinson’s Last Stop on Market Street: "Sometimes when you're surrounded by dirt … you're a better witness for what's beautiful."
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
GRADUATION DAY. Text and illustrations copyright © 2017 by Piotr Parda. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher, Ripple Grove Press, Portland, OR.
WALK WITH ME. Copyright © 2008 by Fondo de Cultura Económica. English translation copyright © 2017 by Elisa Amado. First published in English in Canada and the USA in 2017 by Groundwood Books. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher.