Taking its cue from the brutal reality of the urban streets, Barbara Joosse's new picture book, Stars in the Darkness, is based on a young man the author knew who was drawn into a street gang.
This inspiring story is narrated by a little boy whose older brother joins a dangerous bunch of thugs. Using his imagination, the youngster transforms the dangers of his neighborhood: sometimes he and his mother look out the window and imagine that they live on the moon. The streetlights are stars, the sirens are "wild wolves howlin' at the moon," while the sound of guns going off in the distance is the "light of stars crackin' the darkness." The narrator shares a bed with his adored older brother Richard, who takes the position nearest the window to protect him. Yet, as the child often says, "I know what I know." And he knows when Richard succumbs to the siren song of the street's danger the malevolent prestige, the easy money, the sense of belonging. So this smart boy and his loving and frightened mother work out a plan to involve the neighborhood in confronting, peaceably, the gangbangers who are on the verge of completely claiming Richard.
Although this is a children's book, Joosse doesn't soft-pedal the material; she makes this sad tale believable. The characters are familiar: the narrator, his mother and his brother speak in the vigorous idiom of the inner city, and the reader can almost hear the narrator's voice, still childish, stubbornly hopeful, made to sound tougher than he really feels.
R. Gregory Christie's illustrations have the simplicity, density and raw energy of schoolkids' poster board paintings. His faces are realistic and nuanced; you almost expect them to come to jittery life the wasted face of a gangbanger with a red bandana around his head, a dog pawing through a Dumpster, a mother's strong but careworn face and severely relaxed hair. Best of all is the face of the narrator set atop a thin, two-dimensional body that seems to be, but isn't, an afterthought. The young face is portrayed throughout the book as curious, suspicious, anxious, tentatively happy, even half-asleep. Children will identify with this range of emotions.
Stars in the Darkness is a poignant and hopeful book.