Friday, February 3

Blackout

by John Rocco  
Disney / Hyperion 2011

On a hot summer night New York City encounters a blackout, bringing out the best in people. A far cry from the blackouts a few decades back!  

All the little girl (or long-haired boy) wants to do is play a board game with her family. His/her sister is too busy talking on the phone. His/her dad is up to his elbows in oven mitts in the kitchen. His/her mom is on the computer, all of them too busy for a game. Then the lights go out, everywhere. Without electricity the boy/girl is frightened but soon realizes there is nothing to be afraid of. They head to the roof where they discover the stars, almost always obscured by city light, as well as people bringing their hot summer lives to the rooftops. They head down to the streets where others are taking advantage of free ice cream and opened fire hydrants. In a single moment the city is turned from sweltering misery into a massive block party.  

When the lights come back on everyone returns to their normal lives, but not everyone: keeping the spirit of the blackout alive the little boy/girl's family leaves the lights off and plays a board game together by candlelight.  

There is a grand tradition in picture books to address and capitalize on childhood fears. Being afraid of the dark is common, but by focusing on a blackout this fear becomes much larger. After all, a child afraid of the dark can be placated by a nightlight or an open door with hallway light streaming through. But to have an entire metropolitan area go to totally dark could seem like the end of the world. Rocco minimizes the fear by highlighting all the better parts of what can happen in this scenario -- after all, if a blackout meant the neighborhood ice cream shop starts giving away ice cream, as happens here, how bad could things be? In fact, given the positive experience I could see some readers anxiously awaiting summer for the hope of free ice cream and game night with the family. Also, if the book gives some parents pause in considering the need for an emergency kit, all the better to be prepared.  

As with a true blackout there is also a sense of out-of-sight, out-of-mind involved here. The particular block in Brooklyn depicted here will likely enjoy a much better blackout experience than those neighborhoods that might be more economically depressed. But then, with the blackout, who would know? Televisions wouldn't be transmitting reports and aside from a few battery powered radios (do people own radios anymore?) the blackout people experienced would be the only blackout people would know.  

I don't fault Rocco for giving us a rosy picture of a blackout, or for the message that younger readers should not be scared of such things. My only hope would be that it doesn't take this book, or a similar event, to trigger a family to consider more quality time or better appreciate the stars obscured overhead.
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