Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

About Darkness: Some recent discoveries

Dark Emperor & Other Poems of the Night, written by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Rick Allen. Published in 2010 by Houghton Mifflin Books for Children.

DarkEmperorPoemsNight“There are definitely faster methods of making a picture, but few more enjoyable in a backwards sort of way.”

The artist was speaking of production, but the artwork is eminently enjoyable for viewers as well. The tones are subdued but varied, with as many pinks as browns, eye-pleasing and intricate, sophisticated and dynamic.

Each double-spread presents a verse covering most of the left page, and a large image covering most of the right, but the balance is maintained beautifully, by incorporating a smaller companion image alongside the verse and a single panel of narrative alongside the artwork, devoted to information about the flora and fauna at hand.

The illustrations are relief printing, in which a “drawing or sketch is transferred onto a block of wood or, in this instance, a sheet of linoleum mounted on wood, and the drawing is then cut and carved away using a variety of tools”.

Then, the uncut areas are inked and printed, with a number of blocks “successively printed in different colours” to make a multicoloured print. The prints in this volume required between three and six blocks and were then handcoloured with gouache (a strongly pigmented watercolour).

From crickets to efts, from snails to porcupettes: the verses take a variety of forms and there is a glossary in the back which offers accessible definitions to some of the vocabulary.

Readers learn about stridulation, the shrill sound made by insects like crickets that rub two body parts together, and ubi sunt, the style of medieval poetry that laments the loss of heroic, beautiful things.

A beautiful compendium of verse.

Batwings and the Curtain of Night, written by Marguerite W. Davol, illustrated by Mary GrandPré. Published in 1997 by Orchard Books, New York.

Batwings Curtain Night“Digging deep within the earth, the Mother of All Things brought out a lump of clay. She molded it into a perfect ball, then tossed it up, high into the sky. As it rose, the spinning ball began to glow, brighter, brighter, bringing light and warmth throughout the world. And day was born.”

It’s an original story, but “inspired by a storyteller’s brief tale, the source unknown. As often happens, the teller heard it from another storyteller, who heard it from another….”

Rich illustrations and rhythmic phrasing welcome younger listeners and readers but the story is suitable for all ages.

And even though many of the scenes unfold at night, the colouring is vibrant and dynamic.

Creatures of the night are integral to the workings of the world: panthers, coyotes, sloths, owls and particularly bats.

Eyes and noses are especially prominent in the illustrations, and the lines are smooth and solid: these figures might live in the dark, but they do not seem to lurk and stalk.

(I rather wish that the Mother of All Things was not a golden-haired, fine-featured princess-type figure, but the other animals feature more prominently in the illustrations beyond the opening pages anyhow.)

Had I known of this book when I was a young reader, it would have become an ATF read in a single sitting.

These two books were recommended by Shivanee at Novel Niche as part of her Charting Children’s Literature series.

The Dark, written by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Jon Klassen. Published in 2013 by HarperCollins, New York.

Dark SnicketWith a playful tone that readers of his other books for children, Lemony Snicket gives a voice to the dark which makes us smile.

“At night, of course, the dark went out and spread itself against the windows and doors of Laszlo’s house.”

The illustrations are dramatic with bold lines and stark darks and un-darks, not at all like the gentle representational images which accompany Ted Kooser’s House Held up by Trees.

“You might be afraid of the dark, but the dark is not afraid of you. That’s why the dark is always close by.”

Laszlo is not the star of this story. That role, unsurprisingly, is reserved for the dark.

But the little boy gamely climbs the stairs and explores as directed. His button-eyes and blue-footed sleeper makes him a character with whom readers (of all ages) can relate.

Once Upon a Northern Night, written by Jean E. Pendziwol, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault. Published in 2013 by Groundwood Books, Toronto.

I approached this volume with thoughts of the artist’s illustrations for Kyo Maclear’s Virginia Wolf (one of my favourite books from the last reading year).

The transformative power of colour in that story, which helped protect at least one of the sisters from the wolf at the door, is an important element in Once Upon a Northern Night as well.

OnceUponNorthernNight

Not only is the story bookended by images which exhibit this, but the final picture which the storyteller “painted” is soft and transformative as well.

Unlike The Dark, there are a lot of greys and muted tones in this volume. The use of colour is sparing, the lines soft and the shading complex.

The repetition of the title throughout the story is soothing and warming, offering comfort. Hares scamper and chase, predators prance away: the dark is not playful here, but it is peaceful.

“Once upon a northern night
I sent the frost
to dance on your window
and make a frame.”

Delicate illustrations and gentle verse: a lovely addition to a winter’s bookshelf.

Each of this volumes has much to offer to readers who seek to warm their relationship with darkness.

Not only, but perhaps especially, appropriate for Winter Solstice reading.

Seasons Greetings!

2 comments to About Darkness: Some recent discoveries

  • I love this post! The Dark was one of my favorite books of 2013. It was such a creepy read, but in a good way. I’m going to add Northern Nights and Batwings to my tbr list. Have you read the volume of Emily Dickinson’s poems that are illustrated by Arsenault? They’re beautiful. I hope you share more posts about children’s books with us.

    Happy New Year!

    • Creepy in a good way: that’s true! It’s very charming. And I think it would appeal to a wide variety of ages, from the very young….and up. And, no, I hadn’t spotted that volume illustrated by her: now I’m thinking that I need another project. Yup, that’s it. Definitely. Thanks for the inspiration.

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