Module 3: Smoky Night

Smoky night

Book Summary:

In straight-forward prose, Eve Bunting tells the  story of Daniel and his mother as they live through the 1992 Los Angeles riots.  As seen from their apartment window, Daniel and his mother witness the craziness of that time.  While his mother tries to comfort him, Daniel attempts to understand how people can do things a child clearly knows is wrong.  David Diaz’ acrylic portraits over mixed-media collages movingly portray Bunting’s story.  This tale ends with the notion that people must first know each other in order to become friends and understand one another.

Bunting, E.  (1994).  Smoky night.  New York, NY: Harcourt Brace & Company.


This book really moved me.  I found myself in tears every time I read it- and I read it several times in order to catch new details in the illustrations.  I was pretty young at the time of the Los Angeles riots and was not very interested in what was happening WAY out in California, but this children’s book made me dig deeper and do some research about what happened.  It is a shame how much damage was incurred and how little has been done to rebuild the area.  The simple message relayed by this book is that no matter what our separate backgrounds are, we as humans, must work to get to know each other and try to accept one another.

The illustrations in the book are fascinating to look at; I poured over them many times looking for all the tiny details.  Mr. Diaz used a mixed-media collage background usually containing elements from the action taking place in the book.  For example, when Daniel and his mother watch a man carrying stolen clothes from a dry cleaners still in their plastic wrappings, the collages have plastic wrap strewn across the page.  Then his acrylic paintings have a somber, heavy sort of feel that seems appropriate for this serious story.   Overall this book is very deserving of the Caldecott Medal it won in 1995.

Professional Review:

“Kindergarten-Grade 3-Daniel and his mother watch through their window as an urban riot is in progress. She tries to explain what is happening as he sees the laughing people break into the neighborhood stores and rob them. One of the victims is Mrs. Kim, whose cat is the enemy of his cat, Jasmine. Daniel’s mother doesn’t shop at Mrs. Kim’s store because she feels it’s better to “buy from our own people.” Later, their building is set on fire and he and his mother go with their neighbors to a shelter. The boy worries about Jasmine, and is relieved when a fireman brings her and Mrs. Kim’s cat to the shelter. The felines have learned to get along in their shared danger. Bunting skillfully uses the voice of the child narrator. His innocent view of the riots makes the destructive behavior of the rioters more abhorrent. His suggestion that the cats were enemies only because they did not know each other well enough enables the adults to reach out to one another and bridge the distance their prejudice has kept between them. Diaz illustrates the story with bold, dark, stylized acrylic paintings framed by collage backgrounds of various textured objects usually reflecting the text. When the rioters loot a dry cleaners, for example, the background is wire hangers and plastic film. The pictures are more arresting than appealing, but they invite discussion and will stimulate thoughtful responses to this quietly powerful story.”

Sherman, L. L. (1994, May). Book review: Preschool & primary grades [Review of the book Smoky night, by E. Bunting]. School library journal, 40(5), 89.  Retrieved from

Library Uses:

I think the cultural background of the library’s patrons will have a lot of impact on what sort of even or program built around this book.  It covers topics which may be very sensitive for some or maybe even most people.  Perhaps this book might be better presented for it’s artistic integrity.  The illustrations are fabulous and the book could be used as an example of mixed media art.  The story could be shared first (I think this could be used for older elementary all the way up to teens if the focus was on recreating the art work- or at least an interpretation of the art work.)  After the story has been read and the pictures shared, offer various collage materials and paper and pens, pencils, maybe even paints, and allow the children to make their own pictures either depicting a scene from the book or something from their imagination.  Perhaps as they are working, conversations will start up about the story and the issues of poverty, injustice, racism, etc. may be discussed in an organic way without the pressure of a formally led discussion.

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Filed under 5420 Literature for Youth

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