Blackout written and illustrated by John Rocco

I don't know how I missed John Rocco's superb new picture book Blackout, but it came into my life at just the right time! And, it was recently named one of the 10 Best Picture Books of 2011 by the New York Times Book Review and a very prestigious panel of judges this year. While Rocco's book is set in Brooklyn and inspired by the blackout of 2003 that affected the city and beyond, his story finds a way to be both delightfully specific and universal at the same time. In September of this year a blackout affected my neighborhood as well as all of San Diego county, leaving almost a million and a half people without power from about 3 pm through most of the night. This kind of thing rarely happens at all, but in a part of the country where weather almost never affects any aspect of our lives, a long-term loss of power is even more rare. And exciting. We couldn't use the electronic cash registers so I got to leave work early! When I got home my husband (and just about everyone else) had the grill going and we had a lovely dinner in the backyard which turned into a candlelit evening under the stars. This is the kind of thing you remember the rest of your life, which is why it is so cool to see it represented (with wonderful inky-dark illustrations) in Blackout! The day I read Blackout at story time I sold the only two copies we had in the store. A grandfather had brought his grandson to story time and loved the book so much he wanted one for each of his grandkids.

What makes Rocco's book universal is the experience of the main character, a little boy who wants someone to play with him but finds that mom, dad and big sister are all busy doing something that requires electricity. Defeated, the boy heads up to the t.v. room to play a video game when WHAM! the power goes out! Flipping the light switch does nothing. A little bit scared, he carefully heads downstairs to his parents, who get out some flashlights and light some candles. 

The family plays a board game for a while to pass the time, but the apartment begins to get pretty stuffy without the air conditioning. The family heads upstairs to the roof for some stargazing and downstairs to the street for some free ice cream, singing and romping in the water from the fire hydrant.

When the power comes back on, the little boy, buoyed by the experience he and his family have just had, turns off the lights and gets out the board game again. This time, everyone is happy to join in.

I am every bit as guilty as the parents in this book of getting hooked in to my electronic devices when I get home from work and forgetting that my seven-year-old is still bouncing around looking for someone to play with. I've gotten a lot better at reminding myself that he does not want to go to his room and shut the door like his (much) older brother and sister and Rocco's Blackout is a beautiful reminder to me of the value and importance of remembering this. Also, in a world where little kids are pretty powerless, it is wonderful to note that a loss of (electrical) power proves to be the one thing that gives this little boy the power to change his family, even if only for one night.

I was so caught up with Rocco's simple but magical story that I forgot to talk about his illustrations, which I love. Rocco, who also illustrated several of his own picture books as well as provided the cover art for many notable novels, including all three of Rick Riordan's series, and new covers for Diana Wynne Jones' trilogy that includes Howl's Moving Castle, Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways. Most recently, Rocco has provided the magnificent illustrations for Katherine Paterson's The Flint Heart (review to follow). Let me tell you, this guy has a way with fairies. Rocco also has a way with the dark, so much so that he makes painting in such dark tones throughout Blackout seem effortless. The beauty of his book is that his characters are so gentle and kind looking, rounded in their features and soft at the edges, that despite the potential scariness for some of the idea of all the lights in the city going out, Blackout never once feels scary. Even if your family has never experienced a blackout, I have no doubt you will enjoy reading this book.

This is a really sweet book trailer that combines interviews with New Yorkers who experienced the blackout of 2003 interspersed with images from the book that illustrate the stories they are sharing.

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