Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Monday, September 15, 2014

An Expected Arrival

The empty hummingbird feeder sways in the brisk breezes, frequent flyers having left for the year.  Milkweed pods hang on slim stems ready to burst open.  Every morning fresh deer tracks pattern my gardens; hostas, ornamental cabbages, mums, hollyhocks, hydrangeas and phlox are their urban salad bar.   High and low temperatures for any given twenty-four hour period plunged by at least fifteen degrees last week; it looks like they are staying.  In eight days it will be official.

In eight days on September 23, 2014 the autumnal equinox will arrive.  It signals a significant shift in weather forecasts, animal patterns and habitat transformations paving the way for the coldest season of the year.  Winter Is Coming (A Paula Wiseman Book, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers) written by Tony Johnston with illustrations by Jim LaMarche is a remarkable ode to this resplendent interval.

It is a cold September day.
Fall is still here but ice
is in the air, I feel it.
Winter is coming.

A young girl walks through the archway entrance to her farm, heading toward the neighboring woods.  Ever so quietly she makes her way to a platform in a tree, carrying a backpack and sketchbook, ready to observe and record.  Still as a stone she listens and looks; a red fox seeks the last apple on a nearby branch.  Two bears, a mother and a cub, hunt for food nearby on another day.

Skunks, woodpeckers and rabbits search and work in preparation for winter in October.  The animals are getting ready; they know and understand.  Food is scare; nothing found is wasted.

The month of silence and silver descends.  A lynx at moonrise, scampering chipmunks, speckled fawns and a doe make an appearance on different days in November.  The stillness is shattered by honking geese; their familiar V gliding overhead.

There comes a time though when no creature comes to the special place in the forest.  The very air is filled with anticipation.  Could it be there are no more lessons to be learned among the hushed trees and fields?  Snowflakes fall on a young girl and a red fox.  Winter comes.

As she calmly sits in the presence of nature's changing seasons a girl gives voice to her perceptions.  Her spoken words, given a timeless tempo by author Tony Johnston, are as gentle, quiet and patient as she and the world around her.  It's as if we are breathing with the same rhythm she is.  Repeated words,

winter is coming

add to the near silent symphony.  Interspersed among her musings are shared words of wisdom from her father and mother.  Her family is clearly in touch with nature.  Here is a portion of a passage.

I can smell them before I see them.
Not a bad smell; a real smell.
My father says
animals are true
to themselves.
Skunks are skunks.

When I opened the dusk jacket of this book, I held my breath.  Readers are warmly invited to experience everything the character enjoys with her senses.  Jim LaMarche brings us near to her as she stands next to the steps leading up to the platform in her tree.  The book case beneath is identical except for the color of winter and the author's and illustrator's names.  The silver is now bright white.  On the opening endpapers a pair of binoculars, several colored pencils, a writing pencil, a small hand-held pencil sharpener, blank paper and sketchbooks are displayed.  Filled with drawings of observed animals, paper and sketchbooks along with a single colored pencil, an eraser and a collected maple leaf are spread across the closing endpapers.

No space is wasted by Jim LaMarche; his illustrative story begins with the first page turn. Rendered in acrylics, colored pencils, and opaque inks on Arches watercolor paper all the pictures cover two pages, edge to edge.  Photographic details are softened through his use of medium.  His color palette, rich and luminous, golden yellow, rustic red, soft brown, deep green and complimentary blues and purples, is absolutely stunning.  Altered viewpoints create a rare realism; you could step into any one of the visuals.

One of my favorite illustrations is on the day no animals come.  LaMarche shows the girl seated on the platform, her back to us, looking into the woods.  She is wearing her purple scarf and hat with her rosy coat.  Her backpack is hanging on a broken tree branch.  The pair of binoculars, a thermos, two sketchbooks and several pencils are on either side of her.  The overall color is of a cold, misty morning near the end of autumn.  A few reddish leaves remain on the boughs; others have fallen to the forest floor and the platform.

Run, don't walk, to your nearest bookstore, to get your personal and a classroom copy of Winter Is Coming written by Tony Johnston with illustrations by Jim LaMarche.  It's an eloquent portrait of autumn moving into winter.  This title will certainly be placed on my Mock Caldecott list.

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