Singing Away the Dark Hardcover – Apr 12 2011
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Quill & Quire
It seems a parental (and grandparental) duty to inform children about the daily hardships of the past. These conversations often make note of the long-ago, mile-long, snowbound walk to school (usually uphill in both directions). The B.C. duo of author Caroline Woodward and illustrator Julie Morstad have taken this cliché and transformed it into a delicate, brilliantly perceptive picture book about a rural child’s long journey to the school bus.
When the steely blue darkness of a country winter morning becomes too frightening for a six-year-old girl, she begins to sing. Singing helps brighten the darkness, quiet the howling wind, and makes the cattle blocking the road seem less beastly. All ends happily when she sees headlights appear in the darkness and is embraced by the warmth of the school bus.
The frightened young girl in Singing Away the Dark finds comfort in her kinship with the natural world, a response that is both authentic and poetic. As her unease grows, she says, “I see a line of big, old trees, marching up the hill. ‘I salute you, Silent Soldiers. Help me if you will.’” There are no Disney moments with smiling, waving foliage, just a child finding an ally in nature. Similarly, her singing does not take the form of a contrived, triumphant musical number. Instead, the girl seems to be murmuring to herself, unselfconsciously lost in her imagination.
Morstad’s art further adds to the story’s charm with the vintage, cozy feel of a 1950s Christmas card. The images are part Clement Hurd and part Julie Flett, combining the style of a classic bedtime story with an acute awareness of the delicacy and fragility of nature. This quietly stunning tale empowers all young children – whether they get to school by snowshoe or SUV – to overcome fear with imagination. – Shannon Ozirny, a librarian in Port Moody, B.C.
About the Author
Caroline Woodward grew up on a Cecil Lake homestead in BC's Peace River region where all the children are brave and tough and where she really did walk a mile to her school bus stop, uphill both ways. Julie Morstad is the award-winning illustrator of When You Were Small and its two sequels, Where You Came From and When I Was Small. She is currently working on two new projects she is both writing and illustrating.See all Product Description
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"When I was six and went to school, / I walked a long, long way . . . / I leave my house, so nice and warm, / on a windy winter's day." A country girl takes off one day on her regular trip across a wooded snowy mile in order to reach the school bus. The problem? The darkness of the pre-dawn is more than a little frightening. Fortunately the girl has learned that if she sings loud and strong her fears will go away. That doesn't mean that there aren't other things to watch out for as well (bulls, etc.) but in the end she sees the safe lights of the school bus ahead and she's made it for another day.
Ms. Woodward's story appears to come from her own youth of growing up in British Columbia's Peace River region. Her little bio at the end of the book says as much, though she has the wherewithal to include a tongue-in-cheek, "where all the children are brave and tough and where she really did walk a mile to her school bus stop, uphill both ways." There's just the slightest hint of Lake Woebegone to that statement, I think. Now Ms. Woodward's writing itself is spare and to the point. So much so that it took a third reading for me to realize that she'd written this story in rhyme. I see that lack of notice on my part as a good thing. Clearly her wordplay feels as natural as speech if the reader doesn't stumble over any awkward rhymes or phrases in the course of the tale. In fact, you get so into the story itself that the rhyming pattern is the last thing on your mind. "The cattle block the road ahead. / The bull is munching hay. / I softly sing to calm myself / and plan the safest way."
I have a special appreciation for illustrators that can capture that strangest of visual concepts: nighttime snow. It has a quality to it that daytime snow lacks. A couple picture books are particularly good at showing off the harsh contrast between black skies and white grounds. "Owl Moon" by Jane Yolen, illustrated by John Schoenherr would be the first example to come to mind. The far more city-centric, but no less pitch perfect, "Snow Day" by Komako Sakai is another great example. Morstad's illustrations are tricky because unlike those other books she has to present early morning darkness without so much as a streak of dawn. In essence, she has to capture that rare quality of distinguishing between night and day without relying on light to make up the difference. She does this mostly through the degree to which you can make out the heroine's clothing. In spite the dark, you can always make her out without difficulty. It gives you the sense that she exists during daytime hours, then.
Not that the images don't work on other levels as well. Since we are reading what is in essence a memory, Morstad had to decide whether or not to make the book look historical or contemporary. She's gone with historical, but very little actually dates the story. The little girl's clothes aren't obviously dated, since hats and scarves and mittens for kids rarely go out of style (and nothing as ridiculous as legwarmers pops up either). The girl's yellow lunchpail has a fine retro feel to it, but not so much that it stands out. As for the school bus itself, those magnificent methods of entling transportation have changed almost not at all since I was a small fry myself. They are the eternal yellow harbingers of schooltime. Instantly recognizable. Forever unchanging, no matter where you are.
It's the combination that makes "Singing Away the Dark" stand apart from the pack. Very few books about six-year-olds can show kids that age act in realistically brave ways. Yet a story about a girl who has to walk a mile in the dark and the snow all by herself is going to hit a chord. Even better is the fact that the book offers a solution to her problem: How to confront early morning scary darkness? The solution is practical and may inspire real life kids to do the same. Beautiful on both a visual and a literary level, Morstad and Woodward are a match made in heaven. If you're looking for going-to-school books outside of the usual fare that also happen to be easy on the eyes, this is one of the finer offerings out there. A real treat and a great little title. Well worth discovering.
For ages 4-8.
It is revealed in the information about the author that she actually did walk a mile each morning to the bus stop. By reading this story, children can see a strategy for dealing with difficulties in a positive way and will see fortitude modeled in a lovely way.
The story follows an imaginative six-year-old girl walking through the woods one winter morning to reach her school bus. She overcomes many obstacles along the way - a barbed wire fence, a creepy forest, a bull munching hay and howling winds. But by singing to herself, she gains the courage she needs to overcome them.
As I grew up in the countryside, this book really resonated with me. The words and the illustrations perfectly captured the simple joys that exploring fields and forests can bring. I felt like I was travelling back in time to a world I had almost forgotten about, and for that I am thankful for this book.
I give "Singing Away the Dark" 5 out of 5 footprints in the newly fallen snow.
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