Most nights near midnight when stepping outside for a final walk with my canine companion, the stillness is absolute. There is not a breath of air stirring through the evergreen boughs or shaking now leafless branches in the trees. There is no birdsong and the owls are not yet hooting. In this serenity with closed eyes, the only sound is the steady beating of my heart and the rhythm of my breath going in and out.
These moments are enchanting and filled with promise. In her first picture book, Long Ago, on a Silent Night (Orchard Books, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., September 3, 2019) author Julie Berry tells the story of the birth of a baby thousands of years ago which is commemorated each year at Christmas. She weaves into this the present-day birth and infancy of a mother's first child. Powerful, gorgeous illustrations by Annie Won cast a celestial glow on every word.
Long ago, and far away,
A baby was born on Christmas Day.
Shepherds knelt and angels sang
Till the night sky with rejoicing rang. . . .
A mother feels the same rejoicing as she looks at her firstborn. She believes as the mother long ago, a new child is a precious gift. All those tender moments shared thousands of years ago are shared now. A soft song soothes.
It is said at the birth all those years ago, the animals, out of love for the boy, began to speak. Perhaps at midnight every year, they still do. This new mother and her husband speak with love, too. They learn to experience life through the expressions of their new baby. Then, as others sought the birth of
A prince of peace, a chosen one,
so, too, do the elders of this new baby.
This new child takes the everyday and makes it extraordinary. As the days passed then and as they pass now, they and the child living in them are cherished. No act is too small.
On that night thousands of years ago, those in attendance knew themselves to be in the presence of one sent from heaven. Our narrator, believes her child is from heaven, also. (Do not all mothers know this to be true?) As the final written words are read, a great happiness wraps around you.
Like a carol the words written by Julie Berry softly sing out and envelope your soul. Her words paint pictures as surely as an artist does with a brush. Her rhyming phrases deftly bring the past into the present with eloquence. For each series of sentences describing the birth long ago, she follows these and pairs them with realizations of the mother in the present. By repeating Long ago we not only are reminded of the past, but this leads us to the wonderful final six lines. Here is a single passage.
Long ago, on a silent night,
Travelers followed a new star's light
Bearing gifts of love to welcome a child
Who would one day calm a tempest wild,
And teach mercy and gentleness as he grew.
My love, you're a gentle teacher, too.
Breathtaking is a word that comes to mind when you look at the open dust jacket. On the front illustrator Annie Won places the present-day mother holding her new child, eyes closed in love, contentment and gratitude. The window curtain billowing with a gentle breeze is like a shawl. The royal blue sky perfectly highlights the stars, text, mother and her child. I love the child's gaze looking out at us.
On the other side of the spine, but still appearing as an extension of the front image, is Mary holding Jesus. The architecture of the building behind them seems to be part of the curtain with its angle and curves. The sky is lighter at the horizon, but a large star seems within the grasp of mother and child. In the lower, left-hand corner there are slightly rolling hills and some grass.
On the book case there is another stunning display of the past and present mingling. On the left an enormous star shines among others. This depiction is presented as part of a star from long ago on the right. Beneath this starry cluster on the left is a bridge and cityscape in the present. On the right, high on a rocky cliff, is a tent with a fire blazing in front of it. Three travelers and several camels are also present. Underneath the ledge are three gifts. This is the first of several illustrations with the Magi.
On the opening endpapers the three men are traveling across an ocean on the left at night toward the present-day cityscape on the right. Their vessel is ancient. One is holding a map. The huge star sits over the city. Clouds billow into the sky at the horizon. On the verso an image of a snow globe with the Holy Family is placed between the present-day child's teddy bear, tiny shoes and Christmas ornaments. Light from this moves across the gutter to the title text. In not wanting to spoil the reading for others, I will say nothing of the closing endpapers except to say, I think they are brilliant.
Each illustration, a two-page masterpiece is a glorious presentation, an enhancement and expansion of the text. Some of the images shift perspectives from one point to the next in the present and in the past. Others focus close to the child now. In all of them are exquisite details welcoming you to pause on every page turn. In each picture there are stars. The symbolism embedded in some of the visuals is stunning. You could frame each and every one of these pictures for display in a gallery.
One of my many, many favorite illustrations is on a crisp cold December day in the present. On the left snow and frosty lace cover the page. On a branch from the top left side to the right side, sit two rose-breasted grosbeaks. They are looking to the right. A third rose-breasted grosbeak, wings a flutter, looks to the right also. The frosty lace frames a window on the right. Through the window, we see the father holding his child and the kitten. The mother is next to them. The child hugs his teddy bear. These beings fill the frame. Their facial expressions are full of love and joy. A golden light shimmers in this scene, along with a scattering of stars.
This book, Long Ago, on a Silent Night written by Julie Berry with illustrations by Annie Won is a lovely, luminous look at the love of a mother for her newborn child. In an author's note and illustrator's note on the verso (dedication and publication information) page, we know the depth of these creators' commitment to bringing a title filled with joy to readers. In this, they have accomplished their desire. This is a title for your personal and professional shelves to be read and shared for years to come.
To learn more about Julie Berry and Annie Won and their other work, please follow the links attached to their names to access their respective websites. Julie Berry has accounts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Annie Won has accounts on Facebook and Instagram.