Once Upon a Northern Night by Jean E. Pendziwol, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault makes me weep.
I first read it back in April earlier this year, surrounded by a sea of people whirling about, chattering, elbow to elbow at a book conference. Despite the din of excited activity all around me, as I read Once Upon a Northern Night I quickly found myself inside one of those silent and perfectly still moments where the surrounding soundtrack fades to nothing, leaving a peacefulness where things can take you utterly by surprise.
Once Upon a Northern Night is a poem all about parental love. About how a parent looks at their sleeping child one evening and, with the magic intense love can provide, conjures up a wintry world full of wonder to gift to their child.
It’s a paean to nature’s beauty set against a snowy night-time backdrop. Pendziwol’s text (disguised as picture book prose) is some of the most beautiful I’ve read all year, set with those moments where description brings an unexpected focus to an everyday image, taking your breath away as you see it as if for the first, astonishing time.
Arsenault’s illustrations are masterpieces in the use of colour, even though they are primarily black, white and sepia. Accents of colour lift them off the page, acting like tangible manifestations of those poetic moments of startling, touching clarity. A certain (apparent) naivety in style acts as a foil to the rich prose, keeping our feet on the ground, ensuring the text’s tenderness never cloys but remains authentic and profoundly moving.
Every line is beautiful in this book, but one set of images caught my imagination in particular:
Once upon a northern night,
in the darkest hours,
the snowy clouds crept away
and stars appeared –
twinkling points of light
hanging in the purple sky.
I knew by the time you woke,
the sun would have chased them away,
so I set them like diamonds
on the branches of the willow.
This made me want to bring home stars for my two children I sought out old chandeliers in our local charity and junk shops and we spent an afternoon taking them to pieces, to create mounds of stars-disguised as diamonds.
We then re-threaded them with silver silk and “set them like diamonds / on the branches of the willow” in our back garden.
We also hung some up in the window of our front room and now when the morning sun shines it scatters rainbows across my workspace.
I didn’t make the connection straight away, but I do wonder if I was a little bit influenced in this enterprise by Pollyanna.
Whilst we re-hung our stars we listened to:
Other activities which might work well alongside reading Once Upon a Northern Night include:
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Disclosure: I was sent a free review copy of this book by the publisher.