Kid Lit Review of “Twenty-One Steps: Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier” by Jeff Gottesfeld

As the author states in the Afterword, Arlington National Cemetery is the final resting place for more than 400,000 active duty service members, veterans, and their families. Identities of many of the soldiers are unknown, and are represented by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia, August 7, 2018. (U.S. Army photo by Elizabeth Fraser / Arlington National Cemetery / released)

As Arlington National Cemetery website describes it:

“The Tomb sarcophagus is decorated with three wreaths on each side panel. On the front, three figures represent Peace, Victory and Valor. The back features the inscription: “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”

The tomb is guarded around the clock by the Tomb Guard, a special military unit designated for that task. Guards, Gottesfeld tells us, swear to the Sentinel’s Creed, which is reproduced at the front of this book.

The poetic text of the book is focused on these unknown soldiers, and is narrated in the fictional voice of one of them. The author’s words are beautiful. He begins:

“I am an Unknown. I am one of many.

We fell for the last time in the Argonne Forest.
At Somme. Belleau Wood.
Facedown in trenches,
faceup on hillsides.
We fell a thousand ways.

In life, we were our mothers’ sons.
In death, we are faded photos on the mantel,
empty chairs at Thanksgiving,
prayers in the dark before dawn.
We are known but to God.”

The narrator then tells the history of how and why unknown soldiers came to be honored at Arlington. People forget easily, the soldier avers. But the soldiers and their sacrifices are never forgotten or abandoned by the Guard. No matter the hour or the weather, he tells us, the soldier is never alone – the Guard is always there. They march twenty-one steps, then observe twenty-one seconds of silence, then repeat.

Why twenty-one? As the Arlington National Cemetery website explains:

“The number 21 symbolizes the highest symbolic military honor that can be bestowed: the 21-gun salute.”

The Tomb Guards, we learn, are made up of both men and women, and represent every race, religion, and creed. The narrator speaks of their duty, focus, gratitude, reverence, discipline, respect, fidelity, appreciation, devotion, and love.

You can be assured that any book illustrated by Matt Tavares is going to be a treat. He does meticulous research, and uses shadow and contrasts to draw attention to different parts of his artwork. The faces of the soldiers guarding the tomb are generally obscured, reflecting the “everyman” (and woman) nature of their assignment. But in his pictures there is no mistaking their seriousness, solemnity, and resoluteness.

Evaluation: This striking book, dedicated both “to the members of the armed forces of the United States of America, past, present, and future,” and to “the Unknowns” was published to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of the establishment of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, on November 11, 1921.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Candlewick Press, 2021

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1 Response to Kid Lit Review of “Twenty-One Steps: Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier” by Jeff Gottesfeld

  1. stacybuckeye says:

    This looks so well done. One of my favorites places in DC.

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