Twenty-One Steps: Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by Jeff Gottesfeld; illustrated by Matt Tavares

Happy Wednesday! Jeff Gottesfeld and Matt Tavares stopped by to discuss Twenty-One Steps: Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier's cover illustration, Arlington National Cemetery, The Sentinel’s Creed, and more. I wrote the words in purple, Jeff wrote the words in black, and Matt wrote the words in green. Thank you, Jeff and Matt! 

Matt Tavares’ cover illustration for Twenty-One Steps: Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is the artistic epitome of the first six lines of the storied Sentinel’s Creed which opens the book, and by which every Tomb Guard lives, and especially the famed Line Six:

“My dedication to this sacred duty
is total and whole-hearted.
In the responsibility bestowed on me
never will I falter.
And with dignity and perseverance
my standard will remain perfection.”

It is dawn on the east coast. The summer sun is barely risen. There are no spectators or tourists at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, only a Tomb Guard in the midst of a lonely sunrise watch. 

Observed only through Matt’s breathtaking art, the guard carries out his or responsibilities with total, whole-hearted, unwavering, dignified, persevering, sacred dedication. Matt captures the soldier’s fidelity in the perfect angle of the carried weapon, the tilt of the hat brim, precision of the pace, flawlessness of the uniform, and so many more details. The mat on which the guard carries out his duty is slightly worn, and the sentinel’s face is unidentifiable, just like the Unknown. Probably a male sentinel, but not surely. Could be female, really. Is this sentinel a Person of Color? White? African-American? Of a Native nation? Religious? Atheist? Christian? Jewish? There have been Tomb Guards from all those groups, and so many more.

In not seeing the guard’s face, keeping the sentinel to the right of the cover, and centering the Tomb, Matt reminds us to look past the sentinel to the simple and magnificent monument, and the crypts holding the remains of unidentifiable soldiers from three wars who made the ultimate sacrifice.

It’s so quiet on Matt’s plaza. The Tomb Guards like to say that instead of walking, they glide. Listen. We can’t hear leather on rubber. We see the sentinel’s shoes gleam in the morning sunlight. They ought to gleam, because the sentinel shined them for hours before moving to the mat, for a two-hour shift where no one can see him or her.

That is a standard of perfection. 

I just checked my very first draft of the text, from 2016. My title has never changed. It has always been Twenty-One Steps. That the title looks etched into the cover honors the fallen Unknown Soldiers. May this book do the same.

On November 11, 1921, America came to a stop. During World War I, 53,000 American soldiers had perished on the battlefields of Europe. (Another 60,000 or so died from disease). Thousands were missing in action or unidentifiable in their deaths. Their names can be found here. At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, one Unknown who had been brought home to rest for forever at Arlington National Cemetery was interred at the new Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Hundreds of thousands of people lined the streets of Washington DC for his horse-drawn cortege from the Capitol to the Tomb. Millions more followed along at home on the radio. Finally, people had a place to honor their countrymen who had given everything they had, including their faces and names.

Arlington National Cemetery is a place that everyone should visit. Walking among the countless headstones of the ordinary, visiting the tombs of the famous, standing on the plaza of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, is an experience like none other. It is a place where the vile fury of war, as I put it in the text of 21 Steps, is inescapable, and where values like duty, rigor, courage, and sacrifice come to the forefront. There are 400,000 people buried there – combatants and their families, going back to the Revolutionary War, including 5,000 unknown soldiers. It is sacred ground, and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is the closest thing that the United States has to a national shrine. Only someone with the most cynical or calloused heart will be unmoved.

The Tomb Guards are volunteers from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, known as "The Old Guard," which is the Army’s ceremonial unit. The testing process to become a Tomb Guard is nearly impossible to complete successfully. It covers Arlington history, uniform preparation, and mat requirements. Scores try for each who succeeds. They are all enlisted soldiers, from every walk of life. They hold themselves to the highest standards of personal and professional conduct. A Tomb Guard gets a badge number when that sentinel is approved for full-time duty. There have been less than 700 badges awarded since the 2nd of July, 1937, when the Tomb began to be guarded around the clock. A badge can and will be revoked, and the name of the Tomb Guard stricken from the rolls, for poor personal conduct like a major crime. As one former Tomb Guard told me – and I paraphrase – “Jeff, I know we’re out there, and it’s a show for the people. But all that perfection is designed not to have people see us, but to look through us to the Tomb itself. And they do.”

TWENTY-ONE STEPS. Text copyright © 2021 by Jeff Gottesfeld. Illustrations copyright © 2021 by Matt Tavares. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

Jeff Gottesfeld’s manuscript for Twenty-One Steps: Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Solider is so beautifully written. When my editor first sent it to me back in 2017, I was at the mall. I couldn’t wait to read it, so I read it right there, on my phone. It gave me chills and made me cry. I knew right away that I was going to say yes to this project.

Twenty-One Steps: Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Solider is a nonfiction picture book that tells the story of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in a unique, powerful, and poignant way. The story is told from the point of view of the unknown soldier who is buried beneath the tomb. The book is chock full of information, but it is told in such a deeply personal way, with so much heart. I hope this book helps young readers understand why the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is there, and why the tomb guards are so devoted to protecting it, and to honoring the unknowns.

The Sentinel’s Creed is a 16-line, 99-word poem which appears on a plaque just outside the entrance to the tomb guard quarters. It was written in 1971 by a visitor to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, known only as “Simon”. The Sentinel’s Creed is the code by which all tomb guards perform their sacred duty. Its spirit is best captured by what the tomb guards refer to as “line 6”: “My standard will remain perfection.” Here are the first 6 lines of the poem:

My dedication to this sacred duty
is total and whole-hearted.
In the responsibility bestowed on me
never will I falter.
And with dignity and perseverance
my standard will remain perfection.

Mr. Schu, you should have asked me about some of the research I did for this book. I visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier three times, in January, April, and October. I wanted to see the tomb and its surroundings in person, in different seasons. Once, thanks to the connections that Jeff had established while he was working on writing the story, I actually got to spend an afternoon with the tomb guards in the tomb guard quarters. I tried to stay out of their way and just watch. They were intense and focused. But they were also kind, and friendly, and answered all of my questions, and even joked around a bit. It was truly awe-inspiring to be able to witness the hard work and dedication that goes into every detail of their uniform, every movement that they make, every hour of their day.

Look for Twenty-One Steps: Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Solider on March 2, 2021. 

With every step, the Tomb Guards pay homage to America’s fallen. Discover their story, and that of the unknown soldiers they honor, through resonant words and illustrations.

Keeping vigil at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, in Arlington National Cemetery, are the sentinel guards, whose every step, every turn, honors and remembers America’s fallen. They protect fellow soldiers who have paid the ultimate sacrifice, making sure they are never alone. To stand there—with absolute precision, in every type of weather, at every moment of the day, one in a line uninterrupted since midnight July 2, 1937—is the ultimate privilege and the most difficult post to earn in the army. Everything these men and women do is in service to the Unknowns. Their standard is perfection.

Exactly how the unnamed men came to be entombed at Arlington, and exactly how their fellow soldiers have come to keep vigil over them, is a sobering and powerful tale, told by Jeff Gottesfeld and luminously illustrated by Matt Tavares—a tale that honors the soldiers who honor the fallen


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