Famous poems by Langston Hughes (1902–1967) inspire two exceptional picture books.
“At just thirty-three words total, [this] poem is a study in simplicity,” writes Smith (Rimshots ; If ); in its visual simplicity, his picture-book presentation is a tour de force. Introducing the poem two or three words at a time, Smith pairs each phrase with a portrait of one or more African-Americans; printed in sepia, the faces of his subjects materialize on black pages. “The night,” reads the opening spread, across from an image of a man’s face, his eyes shut; “is beautiful,” continues the next spread, showing the same face, now with eyes open and a wide smile. The text, sized big to balance the portraits, shows up in hues that range from white to tan to brown-black, reflecting Smith’s reading that “the words celebrate black people of differing shades and ages.” An inventive design adds a short, shadowed row or column of small portraits to the edge of many spreads; these quietly reinforce the concept of “my people.” Whether of babies, children or adults, Smith’s faces emerge into the light, displaying the best that humanity has to offer—intelligence, wisdom, curiosity, love and joy. Ages 4–8. (Jan.)