Review of the Day: Afterward, Everything Was Different by Rafael Yockteng, ill. Jairo Buitrago
Maybe there was a moment during the early days of the pandemic when a whole slew of picture book creators thought to themselves, “Boy. Things are rough now. When has it been rougher than this? I know! The Pleistocene!” How else to explain the slew of books for kids I’m seeing out right now that explore this very notion? Maybe there’s a comfort in turning not merely to the past, but the ancient past. And how interesting that no matter how well you think you know a picture book creative duo, you can never really predict where they’ll go with their next project. I’ve read everything Yockteng and Buitrago have done together that’s been brought to the American market, but nothing they’ve done could have prepared me for Afterward, Everything Was Different. Years and years ago I adored their collaboration on Jimmy the Greatest but this is heads and tails different from that. Here they’ve decided to produce an epic bit of storytelling, all in black and white, following a clan of early people and the one member who will help to change the world. Sometimes, it’s nice to sink into the past and get away from your troubles. Particularly when the characters’ troubles are so so so much worse than your own.
Our story opens on a field of what look to be stampeding buffalo (or some kind of buffalo ancestor). The world is wild, full of volcanoes and valleys. While a giant sloth feeds on a tree, five men attack the buffalo with their spears. When the attack goes poorly, the title page appears. “Afterward, Everything Was Different.” The men rejoin the rest of their tribe, including a man-like creature, a dog, two women, two naked boys, and a girl who notices the natural world around them. Over time they lose members to animal attacks and falling rocks. They defeat wild beasts and at last find themselves in a warm cave. Here, the girl that has paid so much attention to everything, constructs beautiful cave drawing on the walls. And when her family returns she is able to tell them their own stories. “The marks she made were never erased,” we read at the end. And afterward, you know why, everything was different.
This isn’t the first wordless caveman picture book I’ve ever seen, by the way. Just last year we saw Finding Fire by Logan S. Kline. Still, that book pretty much said everything it needed to say in its title. This book relies heavily on cinematic imagery, particularly right at the start. The opening takes place for about twelve pages before you get to the title page. Naturally I was reminded of Brian Selznick’s work on The Invention of Hugo Cabret (particularly as both are done entirely in black and white graphite). The author and artist then riddle the storyline with context clues, allowing kids to understand the story maybe with the first read, maybe over the course of several rereads, all depending on when they come to it. And this sequential art is marvelous, but it’s the ending that brings everything together. You’ve seen this clan survive, losing members along the way. You’ve seen them fight beasts, become cold and hungry, and ultimately find a place to call home. The girl is able to tell them their stories, and then, in a final shot, she gets a huge hug from her father. I don’t even need the fairly superfluous written page after that saying she’d rule the clan someday. That shot of a girl with her daddy in a hug, of him approving of what she is doing and encouraging her, is all the ending that I need. We may as well infer the rest.
When you reread this book, you tend to notice something new every time. Just now I gave it another look and discovered that it’s the girl, the one who is always noticing nature, that points out animal threats long before anyone else, whether it’s vicious sea creatures or saber tooth tigers. I had already noticed that in each scene she’s the one scoping out the giant footprints or investigating the stars. When she creates the cave art for the first time the reader can have a wonderful time looking through her drawings and aligning them to the different adventures the troop has experienced over time (my favorite, of course, being the man in the belly of the sea monster). Of course, something that the book doesn’t mention, but that’s been reported over the years by the Smithsonian, National Geographic, etc. is that after examining the handprints in ancient art (and you’ll find some of that on the back endpapers) it is now understood that around three quarters of cave art was created by women. And yet this is the first picture book I’ve ever seen to allude to that in any way. A little mention of this at the end wouldn’t have been out of place. Hopefully some folks will be able to inform their kids as they read them this book.
The mix of science and fiction is original as well. The animals depicted in this book are fun to track, though I doubt anyone would turn to this bok for strict scientific accuracy. I could buy the giant sloth the humans encounter at the beginning, but the giant ancestors to the horse walking with their heads above the treetops felt a little (forgive me) over the top. In contrast, I was completely on board with the human-like compatriot who accompanies this ragtag little crew. We know that there were many other ancient ancestors that were not Homo Sapiens, and these early humans often intermingled. This fella isn’t a Neanderthal, but he has distinct human-like qualities. Considering the fact that there were probably a slew of species that went extinct, it’s not hard to imagine a storyline for this fella. He’s significantly taller than the homo sapiens and they accept him without question. Honestly, I’m much more enamored of a book for kids when it has weird little details like this one in it.
I was also deeply amused to discover on the publication page of this book that this translated title isn’t the original. Apparently in Spanish this book is called, “Ugh! Un relato del pleistoceno”. I was no Spanish major, but even I can tell that “Afterward, Everything Was Different” is a much better title. It’s funny, but with its wordless storytelling and epic view of history, I can’t help but think that this would pair beautifully alongside the equally ambitious and wordless (if visually very different) The Tree and the River by Aaron Becker. That book is all about the cyclical nature of human struggles. This book is about how those struggles began and how we found one, powerful way out. If you read Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Harari, you’ll learn that one theory of what distinguishes humans from other animals is our ability to tell stories. Tell stories and you can construct cities, religions, monetary systems, philosophies, and more. And sometimes, all it takes, is an observant child. It’s not nonfiction, but this is one of the smartest little books you’ll ever hand a kid on where it all comes from. Beautiful.
On shelves May 8th.
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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