Review of the Day: All of a Sudden and Forever by Chris Barton and Nicole Xu
All of a Sudden and Forever: Help and Healing After the Oklahoma City Bombing
By Chris Barton
Illustrated by Nicole Xu
Carolrhoda Books (an imprint of Lerner)
On shelves now
I didn’t intend to review this book in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. When I first saw it, months and months ago, I thought it would make a lot of sense to review a book about what happened after the Oklahoma City Bombing of 1995, on its exact 25th anniversary. I had no idea that an equally historical moment would be happening to my country on April 18th of 2020 or that this book, with its understanding of people who “lost hope that anything would ever be okay again”, “suffered damage to their minds and spirits,” and the brave ones who “saw horrible things they would never forget”, would feel so on the nose in its assessment of the state of the world today. A pandemic is not a bombing, nor could it ever be mistaken for one. But if we are talking about events that change us all and that we must collectively heal from (whether literally or figuratively) then this book might be precisely what we need. Because this isn’t just a book about something that happened a quarter of a century ago. It’s a book that is meant to help you learn how to heal and recover and hope in the face of the horrendous. Parents, it’s time to homeschool a little history. The kind we need now more than ever.
On a morning in April of 1995 a truck blew up outside of a building in Oklahoma City. Lives were changed that day. Some lost their loved ones, while others never fully recovered themselves. But this is not about how the bombing came to be. This is about what came after. “Healing doesn’t always come easily,” and so many people needed help. Oddly, an elm tree survived the blast that day. After it had healed, people started to collect its seeds. They had already been traveling around the country and world, telling the story of the bombing. With the elm’s seeds, they began giving away little versions of what they dubbed “The Survivor Tree”. They also built a memorial and got on with their lives. Now the people closest to the bombing are passing on what they know to other generations. Backmatter includes an Author’s Note, an Illustrator’s Note, Recommended Reading, Other Recommended Resources, and extensive information on research material and interview subjects.
One narrative technique that Barton uses in this book is to begin it with a clear recitation of the facts of the bombing and then to punctuate the sentences that follow with assurances of what is “true” about the case. “It is true that many people were hurt, in many, many ways.” “It is true as well that some who survived had their bodies broken in ways large and small.” “And it is true that some found their lives flooded with anger, grief, or fear.” I wonder at Barton’s method of truth telling. Somehow he is capable of both telling hard truths about horrible things, while also establishing this small bit of distance between the reader and the events. It feels like a buffer of sorts. Barton is writing a book for children, remember, but in reading this I am reminded of the swath of books that were published in the wake of 9/11. I remember how much I wanted to find a book like this one at that time. Mostly we got inspiring stories about tugboats and roses and tightrope walkers, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of that. Still, there was a part of me that wanted to find a book that told children the truth about how hard it is to live through something like that. Hard, but not hopeless. Barton’s words don’t just let the reader in on the complicated truth behind massive, horrible events, but also give people experiencing similar tragedies permission to be hurt and angry and afraid. Tone is everything in Barton’s writing. Without it, the book falls apart.
This book is not called “The Survivor Tree”. Do you find that significant? The tree graces the cover visually, but is not mentioned in either the title or subtitle. Wouldn’t it have felt like an entirely different book if it had been called something that maudlin? Notice too that it’s also not a book about the events that led up to the bombing and what happened that day. It could have been. No such book exists for kids, insofar as I know. Yet Barton has chosen to instead write a book about an aftermath, a choice that I find exceedingly wise. Sometimes it feels like we’re all living in the shadow of different catastrophes. Using a kind of emotional restraint in his writing, he explains to children such basic concepts as, for example, the purpose of memorials. Of the people affected by the bombing, “None of them had been hurt in exactly the same way, yet they could all seek some healing in this space they had in common.” It is an author’s choices that make or break a book. The title, the subject matter, the writing, it’s all part of a bigger picture.
Which brings us to the gutsy choices of artist Nicole Xu. Xu’s figures are uniformly featureless. That’s no insult, that is a fact. They are literally bereft of expression. And so I got swept up in a kind of chicken-or-the-egg type of thinking. Were Xu’s characters in this book expressionless before she read Barton’s text or did Barton’s text, which is calm and clear and concise, inspire this emotional restraint on Xu’s part? Whatever the case, due to the weight of the subject matter, I cannot imagine this book with art by anyone except Nicole Xu. Facial expressions have their place in nonfiction picture books. However, so much more can be read from simple things like posture, position, and interactions. We don’t need to see tears in the eyes of a person sitting alone in a darkened room to know that they are sad. In her Illustrator’s Note at the back of the book, Xu mentions wanting to match the tone of the writing. Out of curiosity I looked at her other work to see if perhaps this was just in the vein of what she usually did. To my delight, I saw that this decision to wipe clean the faces of the characters was certainly an original decision on the artist’s part. That’s not the only thing she’s done here, though. Look at the ways in which she incorporates branches and roots into her images. So often these reach out, subtly, to people,
There is a moment at the end of All of a Sudden and Forever when Barton reveals to kids that the people most affected by this bombing will not live forever and over the years will slowly die. “Likewise, the Survivor Tree itself will not live forever,” but because its seeds have been planted and raised all over the world, the tree and its story has been passed on. And as the seeds go on, so too will the people who were comforted by the Survivor Tree initially. And that comfort will be shared and grow. Most of all, “We will remember.” Who is the hero of this book? Barton focuses on three specific groups that came together after the bombing: Families. Survivors. Helpers. This is their story, and just as they reached out to other people after their own calamities, this book reaches out too. As Barton says in his Author’s Note, “My hope is that as new tragedies enter our lives, or as we grapple with past losses, we can take some comfort from the experience and gained some perspective on their own journey.” At this moment in time we’re experiencing a mass pandemic the like of which we’ve never experienced before. It can be very scary, and some of the more jaded kids out there are worried that we may never return to “normal” again. No tragedy is exactly like any other, but I think there’s a great deal of good that comes from a book this adept. Learn the past. Heal the future.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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