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Keeping the Night Watch Hardcover – March 18, 2008
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From School Library Journal
Starred Review. Grade 5–8—This book picks up where The Way a Door Closes (Holt, 2003) left off. Now that C.J.'s father, who had left the family, has returned, the teen notes that dinners are like "a roomful of strangers" and that he feels weighed down by "brick heavy" questions. Wise beyond his years, eldest son C.J. felt it was his role to "keep the night watch" during his father's absence. Now, he feels displaced in his own home and seethes with anger and resentment. Gradually, everyone starts to move on: C.J. experiences the awkward elation of first love, tries his hand at shaving, and argues and makes up with his best friend. His little sister sends love notes to each family member, and, at book's end, C.J. and his family come together: "We dance on our tears." As in the previous book, Smith masterfully brings her characters to life from the inside out in straightforward free verse. Lewis uses his brilliantly composed, watercolor-and-ink paintings to underscore the strong emotions of the text. This hopeful book celebrates the power of families to heal and overcome hard times. It will speak to the hearts of many readers.—Marilyn Taniguchi, Beverly Hills Public Library, CA
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*Starred Review* Smith’s The Way a Door Closes (2003), illustrated by Shane Evans, ends when Daddy returns home after leaving his family. In this sequel (with art by Lewis), 13-year-old C. J. struggles with his anger, pain, and sense of betrayal, unable to forgive Daddy, scared to hope or let his feelings show. The words are simple (“Am I safe? Will you stay?”), and the beautiful watercolor pictures of the African American family have the same quiet intensity as pictures in the first book, whether they depict the standoffs between characters or the seething teen all alone. Daddy says he’s sorry, but can C. J. hear him? Gradually, as things get better, the scene shifts to C. J. having fun with his friend and his crush on a classmate, but at the core is family: “Momma wears a painted-on smile that says everything is okay, now,” but the portrait shows her stress as well as her strength. Although mainly free verse, there’s also a sonnet, and in one chatty 26-line piece, each line begins with a different letter of the alphabet, arranged in successive order. Unlike the first book, there’s nothing idyllic here, even in the stirring climax, in which C. J. surprises everyone, including himself. Grades 5-8. --Hazel Rochman
Top customer reviews
Told in free verse poetry, this book tells the journey from fall to spring, from hate to forgiveness, and from separation to unity. The simple words are rich with figurative language. C.J. compares the family conversations to baking, his father's eyes to a white flag of surrender, and the family's security to fine bone-china. Although each poem could stand alone, woven together, they tell the story of a healing family. Offsetting the serious nature of forgiving a father who abandoned him, C.J. also describes his crush on Maya and his nervousness when he's around her. The addition of these poems creates a balanced look at a teenage boy.
The pictures, illustrated by E.B. Lewis, add fill in the blanks left by the simple words. The most compelling picture is the one for the poem entitled "Showdown at the O.K Corral", which pictures C.J. and his father face to face, C.J.'s face angry and his father's face determined. Another picture that speaks volumes accompanies the poem "Light at the end of the Tunnel", which has a dark tunnel with C.J.'s father at the end in white, symbolizing C.J.'s secret hope that at the end, his father will be there as "our sun rising" (Smith 69).
To introduce this book, "If You can't Stand the Heat", which epitomizes C.J.'s anger is a good place to start.
I am mad.
I am the worst kind of mad.
I don't yell.
I don't slam doors.
I don't throw things.
I'm a pot with a lid on,
I keep all my mad inside.
I just let it stew.
I want Byron to be mad, too,
but he isn't.
Says he doesn't want to hold on to mad.
He takes the lid off his pot,
Lets mad go.
Says he wants his family back.
Says he's glad Daddy's home.
I'm mad at Daddy,
But it feels like I'm mad at Byron, too.
We're two different kinds of pots,
Byron and me,
and when it comes to Daddy,
we can't cook together. (Smith 16)
Students can analyze the emotion, the simple sentence structure to convey anger, and the cooking metaphors and then compare it to the final poem "Dance with Me" where the family finally comes together when C.J. dances with his father. "We keep our eyes on Him. We dance on our tears" (Smith 73). After reading this poem, students could write in their Jammin' Journals (journals written in response to music) after listening to the song "Dance with my Father" by Luther Vandross. The journal entries could compare C.J.'s feeling of forgiveness when he dances with his father and the song's sorrow over his mother no longer being able to dance with his father.