Category Archives: The Longest Night

The Longest Night, the Sweetest Sound!

I couldn’t have imagined a sweeter or more fulfilling way to draw my extended 80th birthday celebration to a close.

I began celebrating in October by taking my daughter and daughter-in-law to Vermont to revisit my old teaching home at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

In November, my actual birth month, my daughter gave me a party, and various friends invited me to smaller celebrations.  My daughter hosted a family party, too.  (She was busy those days.)  My birthday gift was the surprise of finding my grandson Barrett home from Tampa, Florida, for the occasion.  Then on the actual date my partner, Barb, and I had a delightful just-us evening at a restaurant we hadn’t explored before.

Longest Night

But the climax came on December 9th.  Barb and I traveled to Providence, Rhode Island, for a musical performance of my picture book The Longest Night, created and performed by Community MusicWorks.  The program, Songs of Darkness and Light, included a folktale from Brazil, “How We Got the Night,” along with my winter solstice picture book.

Community MusicWorks is a community-based organization that uses music education and performance to build lasting and meaningful relationships between children, families and professional musicians.  Thirteen resident musicians perform concerts throughout Providence and surrounding communities and offer a free after-school music education program.  This is the third year they have performed The Longest Night.  It was my first time to be able to attend.

I was utterly charmed!  Storyteller Valerie Tutson read, no, she performed my text.  Ted Lewin’s stunning watercolors filled a screen.  And various musicians, some wearing half masks of the animals in the story—crow, moose, fox, chickadee—played Schoenberg and Bach and Haydn, carrying the story forward on wings of song.

Ted and I were asked to join the musicians on the stage at the end of the performance to talk about our work on the book, so I had a chance to explain my inspiration for this small story.

The Longest Night, I told them, began with a question: Why, I asked myself, does the longest night fall at the beginning of winter, not in the middle?  Wouldn’t the middle make more sense?

The answer when I went searching for it turned out to be simple.  As the days grow shorter and colder, the ground freezes and snow falls and stays.  Once the ground is covered with snow, the sun’s rays reflect and bounce back into space, leaving behind little warmth for our air.  And so the longest night becomes the beginning of winter because the climb out is harder and slower than the drop in.

I was delighted to know that, because it tells me more than why winter stays.  It tells me also that with every day growing longer, the beginning of winter is also our first step toward spring!

What a heartening thought, especially for us winter-locked Minnesotans.

And what a life-enhancing experience to hear a piece of mine that I particularly love come to life through another artistic medium

I’ll confess that when I rose at the end of the program to step up onto that stage, Valerie, the storyteller, had to reach down to give this old lady a helping hand.  I’m 80 now and 80 showed.  But oh . . . I am 80 and so blessed!

I Am Not a Poet

icebergI am not a poet, but I do love to write verse.

I don’t make that distinction out of false humility but out of reverence for poetry and for those who create it.

True poetry requires a freshness of language, the kind of unexpected encounter with words that can make the hair rise on the back of your neck. A long-time friend of mine, the poet Barbara Esbensen, used to talk to children about bringing two words together that had never met one another before. I can do that once in a while, but the encounter requires a fair amount of serendipity.

What I can produce intentionally and reliably is work that is lyrical. I revel in rhythm and sound and the shape of the words on the page. I can write succinctly, too, and with close attention to what is left out, the unspoken that will resonate in my reader’s psyche.

Picture books, every picture book worthy of the multiple readings young children so often call for, use all of these techniques. And they are, of course, the techniques of poetry whether they reach the full status of poetry or not.

My most recent picture book, illustrated by John Shelley and published by Holiday House, Crinkle, Crackle, Crack . . . It’s Spring!, is a case in point.

Crinkle, Crackle, Crack ... It's Spring!I work with sound, lots of sounds. Not just the sounds that the characters pursue, trying to find their source: “crinkle, crackle, crack, rap, bap, tap, crunch, scrunch.” But I let the sounds of the more ordinary words telling the story flow for reader and listener alike: “You’d pop out of bed, / you’d creep to the door, / then you’d step outside to see . . . / mud, / rotten snow, /trees shivering in the dark.” Note the repetition of p’s followed by the sudden stop of “mud, rotten snow,” etc.

I toss in an occasional free-floating rhyme, too. “And oh . . . of course, / the bear. / The one standing there / in the middle of your yard.” When I’m writing board books for the very young, I usually work in a predictable rhythm and rhyme scheme: “How do I love you? / Let me count the ways. / I love you as the sun / loves the bright blue days.” (From How Do I Love You? illustrated by Caroline Jayne Church and published by Scholastic.) But for slightly older readers such as those for Crinkle, Crackle, Crack I prefer a more free-flowing line. “The bare bones of trees / stand on a hill / in the chill / breeze.” or “And together they’ll cry, / ‘Take care! / Beware! / Despair! / You can bet / you’ve just met / your worst nightmare!’” (From Halloween Forest illustrated by John Shelley and published by Holiday House.)

The fact that I was playing with rhyme in that unpredictable way seemed to disconcert reviewers until my editor had the wisdom to use the jacket copy to instruct. She referred to the text as “unmetered, rhymed verse.” Once given a name for what they were reading, reviewers quoted that phrase in their reviews and complaints fell away.

Perhaps the most important technique of poetry that picture books use is resonance. The iceberg effect. Ten percent above the surface and ninety percent below. Of course, the text must hold back, leaving room for an illustrator to bring his or her own magic to the story, but the text needs to do what any good poem does as well, leave room for the one who receives the words to feel.

Longest NightResonance is more difficult to demonstrate without giving the entire text, but I’ll risk a brief example from another of my picture books, The Longest Night illustrated by Ted Lewin and published by Holiday House. It opens this way: “The snow lies deep. / The night is long and long. / The stars are ice, the moon is frost, / and all the world lies still. / Bears sleep, as do the velvet mice. / A moon shadow lies by every tree, / thin as a hungry wolf. / “Sha-a-a,” whines the wind, the bitter wind. / “Cold and dark now rule. / Cold and dark now rule.”

If that text doesn’t induce an almost physical shiver, I’m not doing my job.

I’ll say it again. I don’t claim the name of poet for myself or call my work poetry, but the techniques of poetry enrich everything I create, especially when I am writing for the very young.

It is, after all, these techniques that make a story work through the multiple readings young listeners often crave. They do something more as well. They prepare those same listeners for the real thing.

This blog was first posted on E. Kristin Anderson’s site, “Write All the Words.”