Review of the Day: All Because You Matter by Tami Charles, ill. Bryan Collier
Say a phrase repeatedly and there is a very real danger that it will begin lose its initial power. When the words “Black Lives Matter” were first pronounced so loudly and clearly at the beginning of the wider movement, that power was there. Never before have so many considered the implications that rest on the word “matter”. Years passed, and now in 2020, as I write this review, you see the words of “Black Lives Matter” appearing in gigantic letters on streets, on face masks, on signs in yards, everywhere. Now look at that word “matter” one more time. If you’re a writer, what can you do with it? How can you play with it so that when you talk to a child about why they count and why they are essential, they get it? Tami Charles is not the first author of a picture book to talk about mattering and Black children, and she won’t be the last, but in her book All Because You Matter she fights to tell the words in an entirely new way. To do this, she steps back and thinks about the very matter of the universe itself. She conjures worlds and galaxies and then dives down deep into the reality of the moment in which kids today live. There are plenty of inspiring picture books out there for kids. Few understand their purpose as perfectly as this book does.
“They say that matter is all things that make up the universe: energy, stars, space . . . If that’s the case then you, dear child, matter.” A pregnant Black mother and her partner look down upon her belly. From there, multiple hands and multiple faces attest to the strength of ancestors that came before. The baby stands. It learns to walk. It reads books. And before you know it, the child is older. They’re dealing with ignorant schoolmates, and disappointments, and the things that are going on in the world that can’t just be off-handedly explained. And so the book circles back around again. Because the child reading this book matters and has always mattered, “and always will.”
Now the very first thing I had to determine, from the first page onward, was whether or not this was one of those picture books that seem ostensibly to be for children but, honestly, are actually for first-time parents so swept up in the marvel of what they’re about to embark on that they’ll buy any picture book about having a baby. You’ve seen these books before. They tend to get handed out at baby showers and usually mean a lot more to the parents that receive them than, years later, to their kids. Does All Because You Matter fall into that category? Not really, and part of that has to do with the very important reason that this book is ACTUALLY written for kids. Written for the purpose of engaging them and encouraging them. That’s no accident. When you read the Author’s Note in the back, you realize that the purpose for which this book was created was, to a certain extent, to provide Black parents with a resource for when they need to give their kids “The Talk” about the realities of the world. “I wrote All Because You Matter to provide parents with a starting point for conversations about the racial climate in our country today.” Tami Charles then goes on to say that the book’s other purpose is to give children the framework on which to build their inner strength and understand the sacrifices of those that came before.
Another key factor in separating this book from the pack of well-meaning, if rather innocuous, self-esteem titles out there, is the way in which author Ms. Charles wraps music into her writing. Listen to these cadences. “… empires, pyramids, legacies.” And just a page turn later, “Building, inventing, working beneath red-hot suns and cold-blue moons…” I’d be the first to tell you that vapid inspirational texts put me to sleep faster than a mother’s lullaby. And Charles does hedge frighteningly close to pabulum, but never so far that she actually falls in. How does she avoid it? Partly, the credit goes to the subject matter. A book where the subject being praised is a Black boy isn’t really very common. I say this in the year 2020, and it’s true. I’ve no numbers before me, but decades of experience with picture books have taught me that while a White kid can’t throw a rock without hitting a book that will bend over backwards to tell them that they are all superstars. Meanwhile books encouraging Black girls have come out at a steady rate for a while now. Black boys? They’re kept out of the loop. Remember three years ago when Crown: Ode To a Fresh Cut by Derrick Barnes came out and swept the nation? That book was a rarity. All Because You Matter is also a rarity. One we’d like to see a lot more of.
You’ll notice I’m saying the book is directed to Black boys, but that’s not necessarily true. There are girls in this book as well. But for the most part, the kid in the images, anyway, is a specific boy. Collier has chosen to center the text on one child, and though we may get brief glimpses of other kids, he is the focus. It took me a little while to realize that the text itself never mentions boys or girls or any of that. It is directed to “you”. “You” are the kid in this book. It’s only when Mr. Collier got his hands on it that he made the logical next step and turned it into a book where boys, as this book itself says, really see themselves. “… same hair, same skin, same dreams.”
And make no mistake, Collier’s doing some of his best work here. One of my favorite images is from above, looking down on our hero, who is holding his head over a test paper of wrong answers. There’s so much to take in here. The tiny hairs on the back of the head. The perfect way Collier indicates three of the vertebra of the spine, just under the skin. The pattern of the carpet below, which somehow comes across as both industrial and mesmerizing. Now look at how you can see just the barest shadow from the window, and the difference between the carpet in shadow and in the light. It’s masterful to take in, once you really sit back and look. There is another moment, a couple of pages later, that had me flipping back and forth between them. On the left-hand page a boy’s eyes are closed, as the names “Trayvon, Tamir, Philandro” are listed. Turn the page and on the right-hand side is the same boy but his eyes are open. Look what the backgrounds are doing. How in the first spread the boy is before images of marchers in the street. How when his eyes are open that gray and blue and black background has erupted into a peacock’s tail of faces and people. Beautiful.
In his Illustrator’s Note, Collier mentions that his mother was a quilter. The petal images that he has cut out, mimic her quilt pieces. After all, aren’t they both variations on collage? I was reminded of the work of Ashley Bryan on more that one occasion. Like Collier, Bryan has played with the relationship between quilting and illustrating, even going so far as to cut his own pieces out with an old pair of his mother’s embroidery scissors. The link between quilt pieces and the ancestors that appear on them (Collier says that those are the faces you see on the petals) reminded me of Jacqueline Woodson’s Show Way, a story the draws a direct connection between craft and family history. And yet, for all that I mention this book in the same breath as these other two, there is nothing like All Because You Matter out there. It has carved out a niche for itself that only it could fill.
This isn’t the first year that I’ve seen picture books mention taking a knee or police brutality on their pages, but it is interesting to compare the ones that are being produced right now. In one image a boy sits next to his grandfather and the page reads, “Or the time when your Pop Pop / turns on the news, / and you see people everywhere / take a breath / take a stand, / take a knee.” This page in particular made me think that if you were to pair this book with Zetta Elliott’s A Place Inside of Me you might end up with a powerful pairing. And then there’s the science. You’ve probably seen picture books that declare that you, child reader, “are stardust”. You can say it all day but will a child comprehend what you mean? Tami Charles and Bryan Collier think so. Heck, they’re willing to bank on it. And with that tincture of science in its orbit, one can’t help but feel that, All Because You Matter would pair rather beautifully with The Stuff of Stars, which Ekua Holmes illustrated.
What this book manages to pull off is extraordinary. It’s global and universal. It drills down into everyday realities and then pulls back to encompass sheer galaxies. It’s taking a well-known phrase, turning it on its head, and handing it like a present to each and every child reader. Add in Bryan Collier’s art, going places he’s never taken it before, and you’ve got yourself a 2020 title that speaks to this moment and this time better than a book with ten times the word count could accomplish. Remembering, as we do, that you matter, this time we live in matters, and this book matters. It matters more than even we may yet know.
On shelves October 6th.
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.
SLJ Blog Network