"review" · Children's · Illustrator · Picture book · recommend

a nice choice

Blackout written and illustrated by John Rocco

Disney/Hyperion Books, 2011. 40 pages, hardcover. ages 4-8.

John Rocco is an Illustrator to follow. (here is my previous post on Rocco). I put a request in for his latest book at the Library and it finally came in.

“Rocco’s sublime account of a city blackout reveals a bittersweet truth: it sometimes takes a crisis to bring a family together. In a series of graphic novel — style panels, a small child tries to convince family members to play a board game one hot summer night, but they’re all too busy. When the lights go out, though, the neighborhood comes alive and the whole family drifts up to the roof to look at the stars: ‘It was a block party in the sky.’ Rocco (Fu Finds the Way) gets everything right: the father’s pained, sheepish smile when he says he has no time to play; the velvety dark and glowing candlelight of the blackout (as well as the sense of magic that can accompany one); and the final solution to the problem of a too-busy family (a private blackout, courtesy of a light switch). The high-energy visuals that characterize Rocco’s other work get dialed back a little. In the most poignant spread, the family sits on the stoop, eating ice cream: ‘And no one was busy at all.’ It’s a rare event these days. Ages 4 — 8. (May)” Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)

If you are a fan of John Rocco’s work, or have yet to become one, Blackout is lovely book to check out, regardless of your age. However, it is one of those picture books to be read to or with someone, because it is all about spending time together. The most tragic image would be the 6-year-old sitting on the couch reading this while their family members are plugged-in elsewhere, too busy or distracted.

I have mentioned before that I am especially drawn to John Rocco’s use of color, depth, and the energy in the drawings. Publisher’s Weekly notes that the usual “high-energy visuals get dialed back a little,” and it does, it is quieter—yet unmistakable. Linger on a page long enough and the illustrations you already swore were breathing begin to move. Your imagination adds dimension to the page in partnership to the illustrators work—as it should be, don’t you think?

Blackout is done more in the style of a graphic novel in movement and format; even the windows of a building become panels. This is exciting for those who are interested in preparing the young one for such shelves; a potential complaint for more traditional picture book readers. The eye is ready to take everything in, make a study of Rocco’s artwork. I think the format works to focus the sequence of the story which is heavily illustrated and it minds the text, spare as it is.

Blackout has incredible relevancy. It is a book about a family getting caught up in their own pursuits, in their individual rooms, in their nuclear home. I like that the setting isn’t a sunshine-inspired jaunt to the park or market where everyone is radiantly garbed and smiling and energetic with Spring. In a book where time spent together as family and/or community is ultimately our choice, the dark is a perfect setting. At an hour where one can be alone or excused to their own devices most easily, a decision to be in company doing family building activities is especially poignant.

This may be a bit of  a stretch, but I would also add that the relationships championed here are the ‘in person’ kind. The mother on the computer could be blogging or chatting via the interwebs, connecting on that level of community. The father cooking could likely have a social end goal in mind. The sister on the phone maintaining her lifeline to a friend. That the boy goes to a video game may have other implications*. Blackout doesn’t want to forget the family with which we are in physical proximity. The nuclear relationships also exist within a greater context. The couple having an intimate candle light dinner on the rooftops is an scenario that can be penetrated by the sounds and images of the neighborhood about them—undisturbed but not isolated. The empty streets now have faces/images of life to go along with it during and after the blackout.

I like that the sense of loneliness on the part of the boy isn’t because he doesn’t have something he could be doing—it isn’t from boredom, or even a lack of potential companionship as the cat is constantly by his side. Whether one is thinking about their own home or community, the idea of being alone is a terrible feeling—made worse when the lights go out.

a few other niceties: a non-homogenized household and neighborhood. the boys long hair. the portrait of Edison on the wall. the silhouettes. the shadow puppets. Rocco’s composition.

Blackout might be a fun one to stay up with the family and do star-gazing, shadow puppets, and board games, and/or candlelight dinners (we suggest pancakes). or in the classroom (sans fire, of course)?

*I am not against video game play, otherwise I would be a monumental hypocrite. and admittedly game play can be networked to other players, and thus social and not merely in the interaction with software generated avatars/constructs.



Do read: Rick Moody’s review for the NY Times, “When New York City went Dark

An interview w/ Rocco: 7 Impossible Things Before Breakfast: “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with John Rocco”: (from whence you will recognize the images I–er–borrowed) : I recommend subscribing to ‘7 Imps’ for their interviews alone.

John Rocco’s website, where I found more images. His blog is an excellent way to keep with his process and progress and very busy life.

11 thoughts on “a nice choice

  1. If you had only showed a few pics and wrote this:

    “Blackout might be a fun one to stay up with the family and do star-gazing, shadow puppets, and board games, and/or candlelight dinners (we suggest pancakes). or in the classroom (sans fire, of course)?”

    I would have been sold. My local BN doesn’t have any copies but my library has it on order so I went ahead and put myself in the queue. I’m second in line for it.

    It is a great looking book, one I would be tempted to buy if it was just the pencil illustrations. They are lovely.

    It is interesting how the family unit works in these days of multiple distractions (more so than ever before). The three of us really genuinely enjoy spending time together. And yet so often the way we do that is sitting in front of a tv watching something on Netflix or a DVD. A couple of times a year we will either plan a vacation out to a cabin or do something that “forces” (and I use that word lightly because we don’t feel ‘forced’) to do 100% interactive things: read to each other, build a fire and roast marshmallows, play board and dice games, take walks.

    We have a marvelous time and all internally swear to ourselves that life for us will be more like this ‘from now on’ only to unconsciously get right back into our habits of doing very fun (but perhaps not balanced enough) things: blogging, reading, watching stuff, playing video games, etc.

    It doesn’t seem sad in the moment, but when you step away from it and compare it to those special times it really is a sad thing.

    My wife and I have made some conscious efforts towards changing this over the last few months. We have taken to eating several meals a week at the table instead of in front of the tv (a pattern we’ve had all our marriage). We are walking several days/nights a week. Just talking and getting the dog outside. I am reading to her while she cooks. We are doing chores together so that they get done faster and there is a more equitable distribution of labor. But this summer I am hoping we do an even better job of this, incorporating more board games and silly adventures.

    Ultimately I would like to see those be what fills our days and the fun individual things (like gaming, reading) be something we still pursue, but that they aren’t what dominate the moments we have together.

    You’ve got to cut me off. I do ramble on so!

    1. as much as i love his use of color, i think a book done in pencil would be really lovely.

      we three enjoy each others’ company, too. but like you noted, finding balance is another thing, and not getting into a rut of sitting on the couch.–though we are a family that talks during tv and movies, which has set a problematic precedent for the daughter who wants to converse with the friends who insist on silence and concentration, and then there is the full-on restraint at the movie theater.
      we can go a good span of days with each of us in a room, usually me in the office on the computer, sean at the television in the next room, and N in her room listening to her iPod. sometimes all of us with headphones. someone will protest the lack of family time and we’ll spend a good 30 minutes debating which game to play or activity to do and enjoy it thoroughly.

      we found ourselves pairing off a lot this last year. Sean and N doing Odyssey of the Mind, N and I doing the zine, Sean and I conversing on subjects otherwise boring to N; even getting N into the kitchen to cook, we seem to switch out. I hope to change that this year.

      1. I don’t mind chatting when we are at home, but all three of us are very anti-talk at the movie theater. We have friends who are completely the opposite and it is sometimes an exercise in patience going to the movies with them. You can sense people around them getting frustrated with them.

        Speaking of the ‘zine, what is the story with the Germany trip? Is it happening sometime soon. You’ve probably told me but I cannot remember.

      2. yes, we like the quiet in the theater also, but the compulsion is there and it took a while to get her settled in (she whispers like her father, which is to say, hardly whispers at all).

        speaking of the zine, I have a copy for you (but in need of address), or when we put up the pdfs, we could send that. Natalya left last Thursday and will return Tuesday. They are cramming in all the sights and she seems to be having a grand time though I haven’t heard from her very recently.

  2. What a beautiful set of illustrations. The vivid colors combined with the lack of light… wow. Family nights…. can’t wait to spend them with a baby.

    It’s odd how the unit works these days, for sure, just as Carl says above. Too often, when Keisha and I want some time together, we end up plopping* on the couch and watching Netflix. On one hand this is great and nice to be together, but on another, it’s stagnant and doesn’t really cultivate much involvement with one another. We were walking and enjoying the neighborhood until it got to where this was impossible. But alas, the walks shall resume shortly, now with our hands gripping a baby stroller!

    Anyway, thanks for sharing the images.

    *Keisha plops; I sit gracefully… ;0)

    1. Your comment reminded me that one of the things Mary and I at least try to do is actually talk a little bit about what we are watching. It doesn’t suddenly make watching tv an ‘interactive’ activity, but at least we are sharing a bit more about the show than just watching silently.

      1. * lol.

        it is easy to get into a rut activity-wise, especially once you find something that you each can easy agree to.

        very thrilled for your future walks with the stroller and the sweet new baby. blessings on building lovely family memories together; and I hope you and Keisha will enjoy the time together.

  3. Wow L…this book sounds great. It sounds like one for GD and I to read together, and maybe pull IJ into the story. I love the illustrations you showed. When I read, “This is exciting for those who are interested in preparing the young one for such shelves” Then I knew even more that I must have this book in our home. I am loving the whole manga/anime stuff and I do believe that I would like GD to have an appreciation as well. I have just placed the book on hold at my library and if we like as well as I think, then I will purchase. I like your suggestions for family activities; shall do one or two after we read the book. Hmm…silly this may sound, but maybe this would be good for a family read aloud – even with the older children. Our novel reading is going well; too busy to keep up with a book 300+ pages so I am trying to think outside of the box for our family read alouds.

    1. it is very light on text, but I think it could work for family read aloud. Maybe GD and IJ can choose an activity that can go with the reading. would love to know what you think after your reading, and what GD thinks as well.

thoughts? would love to hear them...

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