I love it when picture books surprise. Ever heard of a ghazal? Come to think of it, it would be a killer word when playing Balderdash. Is it: 1) a Pakistani even-toed ungulate, 2) an Arabic poetic structure, dating back to the seventh century, or 3) the purple-satin headgear of Zoroastrians?
Just humor me here.
Read the last Seven Impossible Things on Eric Carle.
All right, no brainer. You probably already called my bluff and have figured out it is choice No. 2, since I usually talk about picture books here at Kirkus. The traditional ghazal is an ancient, “extremely disciplined” Arabic poetic structure, which includes refrains and couplets ending in the same word. This is according to the author’s note in Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s Naamah and the Ark at Night (Candlewick), illustrated by Holly Meade.
Taking liberty with the traditional structure of ghazals—the aforementioned surprise, since when’s the last time you read a picture book featuring that?—Bartoletti has written what is, for all intents and purposes, a lullaby. This lullaby lets Naamah, the wife of Noah, take center stage. (Naamah is her name, that is, according to certain rabbinical legends.) “In the book of Genesis,” Bartoletti writes in the same author’s note, “we’re told that Noah was a just man, full of grace. But what kind of woman was his wife?” After reading about the various interpretations on the name “Naamah,” one being that the name means “great singer,” Bartoletti imagined Noah’s wife as a woman of song, a pillar of strength and provider of comfort.
And it’s one of the most beautiful picture books you’ll see this year.
As the rain falls, as the water swirls, as the thunder crashes, as Noah “tosses in dreams of night,” and as restless animals prowl, Naamah is there, singing. She serenades the creatures, she strokes their fur, she sings prayers, soothes her human children and their wives, and much more—all throughout the shadowy night.
And, as the songs flow, the creatures are lulled to sleep: “Two by two, eyes close at night…wings furl at night…” With an ark cradled by Naamah’s peaceful songs, the crew sails on through the darkness, all inside sleeping gently.
Meade’s illustrations captivate. A study in the ability of line and color to convey mood and capture emotion (the dark opening ark spread and its unease captured with jagged and straight lines and the Naamah-singing spreads full of comforting round lines and warmth), they never overwhelm Bartoletti’s text. There’s an uncluttered sophistication at work here that lets the grace of this lullaby shine. Meade also often works in woodblock prints, and I love to see her switch out her tools and bring us cut-paper-and-ink illustrations or, in this case, watercolor collages.
This one’s a picture book treasure for all ages, simply not to be missed.
Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog focused primarily on illustration and picture books.