I find the craft of picture book making mesmerizing. In just 32 pages, the very best at this art form combine spare, carefully chosen language, with evocative, and layered illustrations to tell stories that very often lead to pivotal shared reading experiences. Whether through a read aloud at school, during story time at the public library or while tucked in as part of a bedtime ritual, for many of us, picture books anchor our first experiences with the way stories can connect our hearts to one another and to the larger world. Perhaps most amazing of all is the way the very best picture book creators manage to make this complex and powerful magic feel effortless. And, y’all, not that there was ever any doubt, but… Antwan Eady and The Pumphrey brothers are some of the very best around.
In what feels like three acts, The Last Stand tells the story of a rural community that is both changing and, with that change, becoming increasingly more dependent on the one remaining Black-owned produce stand at the local farmer’s market. Through the eyes of the farmer’s grandson, we see the ways in which the last stand fills resource gaps for residents who don’t have easy access to food. Together grandfather and grandson harvest the vegetables and gather the eggs for their regular customers while also making deliveries to those who can’t travel to market. As a reader, we are wrapped in the comfort of this routine, until it too begins to change as Papa ages and the responsibility of the farm, the stand and what both mean the community falls to the next generation.
As someone who taught middle and high school readers (as both a classroom teacher and a school librarian) for 17 years, AND as an unabashed word nerd, I couldn’t help but notice things like alliteration, parallel structure and beautifully placed punctuation throughout The Last Stand. The poetry that comprises the book’s text showcases Eady’s talent as a writer and makes The Last Stand a perfect mentor text for budding authors of any age. Eady’s author’s note, at the end of the book, provides further insight into the historical and legislative realities that have led to the disappearance of Black-owned farms across the United States, while also conveying the personal connection Eady has with a community very much like the one depicted in the book. The author’s note alone will, no doubt, serve as a spring board for many important discussions, but taken together with the rest of the text, this final gift to readers adds another emotional element to a story that already tugs at our heart strings in the best way possible.
Now, let's talk about the illustrations. Using their signature hand-made stamping technique, Jarrett and Jerome Pumphrey’s illustrations serve multiple roles in The Last Stand. Not only do the Pumphrey’s images help Eady tell the multi-generational story of a community's relationship to the land and to one another, they also help convey another narrative written between the lines. Through elements like signage and bumper stickers, their beautiful artwork reveals the social and economic pressures bearing down on the community at the center of this story. These subtle details help make The Last Stand the kind of picture book that readers will want to explore over and over again.
It’s no secret that I am a straight-up Pumphrey Brothers STAN, but y’all… I think this is some of their best work, which (right on the heels of a Caldecott honor), is saying something! Plus, not to be missed is the case cover for The Last Stand, which transforms the book itself into the hand-painted sign used at the farm stand throughout the story. I mean… chef’s kiss! 👏🏻
Together, Eady’s text and The Pumphrey’s illustrations represent the best kind of picture book magic. Not only is this book beautiful, but it is also important and necessary. What’s more, even though it’s only February as I write this, I can confidently say that The Last Stand is one of the best books of the year. I rarely use the term "must buy," but it feels appropriate here. Check it out from your local library, yes... but I suspect you're gonna want to add this one to your permanent collection, too.
Publication: January 30, 2024
Audience: Readers of ALL ages will find something to love in this book.