The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier sits perched on a hill in the center of Arlington National Cemetery, with a stunning view of Washington, D.C. This November 11, the Tomb marks its 100th anniversary, and a nationwide contest with the centennial as its theme selected a poster adapted from the cover of Twenty-One Steps: Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to celebrate this anniversary. Twenty-One Steps, written by Jeff Gottesfeld and illustrated by Matt Tavares, is a picture book published this past February by Candlewick, about the Tomb and the Sentinel Guards who protect it 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Told in the voice of the first Unknown from World War I (chosen to honor all unidentified fallen soldiers), this intensely personal narrative honors the ultimate sacrifice and chronicles how the Tomb Guards keep watch by repeating a pattern of walking precisely 21 steps and then observing 21 seconds silence throughout their shifts. These 21 steps symbolize the highest military honor, the 21-gun salute.
What most shocked Gottesfeld as he researched the book was the reason for the guard itself. A few years after the consecration of the Tomb, on Armistice Day in 1921, “people being people, they started to come for the view, not the meaning,” Gottesfeld told PW. “There were picnics and ballgames. On July 2, 1937, the Tomb Guards restored sanctity to this spot.” Since then the Tomb Guards have maintained a constant sentry around the Tomb.
A Memorial Day visit to the Los Angeles National Cemetery gave Gottesfeld the inspiration for the book. He noticed a grave marked Unknown, and considered the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington and how little he knew about it. “I started to think about what an important shrine it is,” Gottesfeld said. By the time he left the cemetery that day he knew he wanted to write about it.
Tavares had a similar, immediate reaction to the subject when he received the manuscript. “I read the first page and was in tears. It was so beautifully written and powerful that 30 seconds into reading it, I knew I was going to work on it. There was so much I didn’t know,” Tavares recalled.
The biggest challenge for Tavares was in capturing the Tomb Guards’ standard of perfection in illustration. “You want to make sure every detail is exactly right. They space their medals to 1/64th of an inch, and they notice if it’s off,” he said. Tavares visited the site at different times of year, and spent time with the Tomb Guards, including in their quarters, to hone his portrayal.
Last month Gottesfeld and Tavares traveled to Washington, D.C., to participate in events that included a solemn wreath-laying ceremony on July 20 complete with the playing of “Taps,” and the dedication of a copy of the book at the Tomb. Candlewick also installed a plaque with the cover illustration in the quarters of the Tomb Guards. “It’s going to be there long after we’re gone. It’s so important to let these remarkable young soldiers know that we’re supporting them,” Gottesfeld said.
The event at the Tomb was organized by United Through Reading, which connects military families who are separated, whether by assignment or deployment, through reading. Family members use an app to read either together or to record a story. “It keeps the soldiers human and keeps the kids connected,” Gottesfeld said. Tavares added, “We heard from one man who used the program as a military kid and he reads with it to his own kids, too. Hearing that made me realize how important their work really is.” Again and again, the team heard from people at the United Through Reading events how meaningful their book is to military families.
In addition to the poster, Tavares’s illustration will also be the official program cover of the 100th Anniversary Centennial Observance events, which will be held at Arlington on November 11. “It’s a great honor,” Tavares said.
Twenty-One Steps conveys great reverence for the Tomb and for the soldiers who guard it. “The selfless sacrifice of the Unknown Soldiers and their willingness to give everything including their names and their faces for our country and its values makes them belong to all of us,” Gottesfeld said. “They gave everything. And the Tomb Guards in this pursuit of perfection in service of the Unknowns, they are giving everything. You don’t get that many chances these days to look at the best of America.”