I bet it’s challenging to match an author up with illustrator Isabelle Arsenault. I think her artwork is really beautiful—stark and evocative and lyrical, all at once—and I suppose it’d be easy for her captivating illustrations to outshine a picture book text. I get inordinately excited whenever I see that she has a new book being released.
In her newest illustrated title, Once Upon a Northern Night, she’s paired with author Jean E. Pendziwol, whose words here are just as beautiful as the mixed media illustrations that accompany them. This is a splendid lullaby of a picture book.
“Once upon a northern night,” the book opens, “while you lay sleeping, wrapped in a downy blanket, I painted you a picture.” It’s never made explicit who is speaking, but readers assume it’s a parent or caretaker of some sort, speaking to the child in his or her care. We see a young child sleeping in a bed, wrapped up warmly in a light brown blanket with darkness all around. The person, speaking in a very direct, second-person voice, continues to paint a soothing picture via words, heading out past the child’s bedroom to explore the night outside: “It started with one tiny flake, perfect and beautiful and special, just like you. Then there were two, and then three.”
What Pendziwol goes on to explore is this notion that, outside of a sleeping child’s warm bed and out in the wider world, Mother Nature is wide awake and alive with wonder. She personifies pine trees (holding out “prickly hands to catch the falling flakes”) and the wind, which tickles the trees to drop snow. A mother deer wanders with her fawn on the narrator’s “canvas of white.” A “great gray owl” drifts through their yard, silently. Two hares play in the snow, and the fox watches, wanting to join in the play. A mouse scurries across the deck, while the “snowy clouds” creep away, colors sing across the sky, and frost dances on the child’s window. All of this is conjured up by the adult speaking, who tries to capture for the child the beauty and the spectacles, big and little, of the night outside of the home.
In the end, the adult has the moon softly kiss the child with the wind whispering adoration.
Pendziwol brings this all vividly and lyrically to life with her words, using imagery and metaphor to paint a crystal clear picture of security and warmth for a young child. She lives in Northern Ontario and evidently draws inspiration for her writings from that particular geography.
Arsenault, herself Canadian, uses a lot of silvers, whites and browns to bring to life this night-time world of mystery and grace. She keeps her compositions clean and uncluttered, and she knows when to use shadow well (the fox spread) and when to let an illustration shimmer (the “snowy clouds” spread with a sparkling white willow tree, draped in snow).
(Is it winter yet? This captivating story has me already searching my pantry shelves for hot chocolate.)
Best of all, this book works in several directions: It’s a story of a child’s security and comfort; it’s a story of the wonders of night-time in the deep, dark winter months; and it’s a celebration of nature.
And it’s one of the loveliest picture books you’ll see all year long.
ONCE UPON A NORTHERN NIGHT. Copyright © 2013 by Jean E. Pendziwol. Illustrations copyright © 2013 by Isabelle Arsenault. Published by Groundwood Books, Toronto. Illustration used with permission of the publisher.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.