Vincent van Gogh famously said that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day. Two new picture books about imaginative nighttime adventures prove the validity of this claim.
If it wasn’t already clear from award-winning team Philip and Erin Stead’s previous books, Music for Mister Moon demonstrates that these two really get introverts. In the first pages, we meet a cello-playing girl named Harriet Henry with long bangs hanging in her eyes. She loves playing her instrument, but only for her stuffed animals. She’d rather not play for crowds, thanks very much.
One night she strikes up a conversation with the moon after inadvertently knocking him from the sky with a teacup she throws in frustration at a loud owl. Mister Moon sometimes tires of being the moon and would like, for once, to float on a lake. With great determination, as well as the help of some friends (including the owl with whom she makes amends), Harriet makes that wish come true. After hauling the moon back up to the sky, Harriet plays her music for “no one but Mister Moon.”
With monoprint illustrations done in oil inks, along with additional flourishes in colored pencil, illustrator Erin Stead subtly anthropomorphizes the moon and creates exquisitely expressive characters and indelible images, like Harriet pulling the massive Mister Moon in a small wagon and rowing him in a frail boat on the lake.
Although she has help, it is the resourceful Harriet who primarily moves the story forward, and author Philip Stead gives her tremendous agency (and a sharp imagination). She makes herself a ladder to retrieve the moon, and she makes the wagon used for transporting him. She can even “change her room into a little house” so that she can make her cello sing. With a superb balance between text and art, Music for Mister Moon is a vivid journey into a child’s nuanced inner world.
David Zeltser’s tale of adventure, The Night Library, is inspired by Patience and Fortitude, the lions sculpted from pink Tennessee marble that guard the main entrance of the New York Public Library. The story—rendered by illustrator Raúl Colón with reverence, energy, cool blue hues for the night sky and warm earth tones for indoors—is told from the point of view of a young boy on the eve of his 8th birthday. He is disappointed when his parents give him a book, but later that night, he is greeted by a lion named Fortitude who stands outside his bedroom window. They take off together on a night journey into the “heart of the frozen city” and to the library, where the boy meets the second lion and tours the building with his new feline friends.
In the children’s section, the books fly off the shelves and form themselves into iconic book characters, such as Peter Rabbit and Mr. McGregor. The boy is moved to see another set of books form itself into the shape of his grandpa, reading to him. Before the boy heads home on the back of Patience, the boy spends quiet time in the library falling in love with literature, reading books he once shared with this grandfather. He writes it off the next day as a dream—until he finds a new library card, just for him, on the doormat outside his home.
Children’s books about the importance of reading are a dime a dozen, but The Night Library resonates on another level as it is also the story of a boy’s lingering grief following the loss of his grandfather. But sometimes richly colored stories can provide healing as well as adventure.
Julie Danielson 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.