A New Picture Book Takes a Fresh Look at American Icons

Amid the fireworks, fluttering flags and barbecue smoke of this holiday week, we celebrate the idea of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all Americans. A beautiful new picture book, Blue Skies, White Stars, will help you introduce your child to the symbols, landscapes and people that have become our national touchstones.

The book opens with the words “blue skies, white stars” to describe two images: a rippling close-up of Old Glory and an expansive view of the Statue of Liberty beneath a night sky, with Ellis Island in the background. It was important to the author, Sarvinder Naberhaus, to begin by honoring Lady Liberty, the first landmark that millions of immigrants to this country saw. She herself came to the U.S. from India as a child, becoming a citizen in 1996.

The illustrations were created by Kadir Nelson, who has won a Caldecott Award and five Coretta Scott King honors for his books and frequently designs covers for The New Yorker. Nelson brings a new depth and resonance to images that are so familiar, they have become, to adult eyes, patriotic clichés. Nelson updates the folksy Americana of Norman Rockwell by pointedly depicting a nation that has always been diverse and multiracial. As he mentions in the end notes, “I hope this work will always remind us that our ever-evolving country was forged by—and for—people from all walks of life and every background.”

Naberhaus’s text is very distilled, with just a short, poetic phrase on each spread. Under the words “All American,” we see a packed baseball stadium, then a portrait of a veteran sitting on a porch with his grandson, eating Cracker Jack and listening to a game on the radio. The illustrations for “Stand proud” show a young woman in graduation robes next to a panorama of Harriet Tubman leading an interracial group of Union soldiers on a military raid. The book is a kaleidoscope of historic images—from Abraham Lincoln’s smiling, weathered face (“Well worn”), inspired by a photograph taken as the Civil War was ending, to the first American flag planted on the moon (“Forever”).

The cover images perfectly convey the democratic message of Blue Skies, White Stars. The front cover shows a little boy on his father’s shoulders, the center of a diverse crowd of people with happy upturned faces, all looking at the sky. On the back cover we see the same group of Americans from behind, melded into a single silhouette, gazing at a sky full of fireworks. The shift in viewpoint is an evocative way to express the idea of E pluribus unum: “Out of many, one.”

This striking, poetic book is bound to start a conversation about turning points in our history and the ideals on which our country was founded. It’s also a quiet tribute to the idea of liberty and justice for all.

Wishing you a star-spangled Fourth,