Once Upon a Northern Night

posted in: Isabelle Arsenault, Jean E. Pendziwol | 10

UK cover (L), North American cover (R)
UK cover (L), North American cover (R)
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:

  • December by Skipinnish (my kids’ favourite band at the moment)
  • Lintuseni by Finno Balkan Voices. Hauntingly beautiful music.
  • BBC Radio 3 currently have a Northern Lights season and we’ve heard some gorgeous, haunting music as part of it, not least during their poetry-and-music-programme-on-a-theme, Words and Music, all about the North Pole.

  • Other activities which might work well alongside reading Once Upon a Northern Night include:

  • Creating paper snowflakes. Here’s a whole Pinterest board dedicated to them. My little ballet dancer likes the ones turning snowflakes into tutus!
  • Use puffy fabric paint or PVA glue to make 3D snowflakes which will cling to your windows. Here’s one tutorial but there are many more out there on the web.
  • Signing up for aurora alerts. There’s Aurora Watch UK, Aurora Service (North America) and Aurora Service (Australia). And here’s an interesting article about auroras on planets other than earth.

  • If you liked this post you might like these other posts by me:

  • On the difficulties of sharing something you find exquisite – When Dad Showed Me the Universe written by Ulf Stark, illustrated by Eva Eriksson
  • Love and a lost toy – Ernest & Celestine by Gabrielle Vincent
  • Frost, birds and the countdown begins – Night Tree by Eve Bunting and illustrated by Ted Rand
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    Disclosure: I was sent a free review copy of this book by the publisher.

    10 Responses

    1. sophie

      dear zoe,
      i really enjoy isabelle arsenault illustrations. do you know “jane, le renard et moi”? it’s a very good illustrated novel or comic, i don’t know what is the proper name. and i’m about to get “virginia wolf”: armel and i are going to see it adaptated for the theater at the beginning of 2016 and l’m very curious to see the album.
      once upon a time in the northern light looks very peacefull and putting cristals in the trees is brilliant 🙂
      have a good day !

      • Zoe

        Thank you Sophie 🙂 Yes we have Jane, The Fox and Me, but not Virgina Wolf. I’m very excited to see that she has illustrated a kids’ biography of Louise Bourgeois – it’s out in the middle of next year.
        Zoe recently posted..Once Upon a Northern Night

    2. Jill Thomas

      Wow — that has made me weep too. And I am going to scour my charity shops for chandeliers and buy the book for all my favourite people. Thank you, Zoe.

      • Zoe

        Thank you Jill. Good luck with the chandelier hunting – always worth asking at the counter in case they haven’t put any out – if they think people only want them in working order (rather than for their parts). So happy to think of this book reaching more people!

      • Zoe

        I like your review too (didnt’ comment because I don’t wish to enter the giveaway on this occasion). Only think I’d say is that although the child could be seen as a boy, there’s no text that determines that. And actually that’s why I prefer the UK cover – it makes the whole book more open to both genders.
        Zoe recently posted..Once Upon a Northern Night

    3. Simone Fraser

      So lovely! Thanks yet again, Zoe. I found the whole post so pure and ‘open-hearted.,

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