For Children

As night falls, books that shine

Il Sung Na’s illustrations in are full of stylized strangeness. Il Sung Na’s illustrations in are full of stylized strangeness. (“A Book of Sleep’’)
By Liz Rosenberg
Globe Correspondent / November 1, 2009

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In autumn, night comes sooner, seems to fall faster and deeper, and lasts longer - and I, for one, am grateful to all children’s books that celebrate the bright side of the dark.

One of the sweetest and most original of the new nighttime picture books is “A Book Of Sleep,’’ written and illustrated by the talented Korean-born British artist Il Sung Na. Even the endpapers are a deep charcoal gray, lightly and mysteriously decorated with images representing moon, stars, and sleep.

“A Book Of Sleep’’ stars a wide-eyed owl who flies through all the pages of the book. The owl makes its entrance at the starting lines: “When the sky grows dark and the moon glows bright, everyone goes to sleep . . . except for the watchful owl.’’

The owl keeps an eye on the nighttime world as a koala baby clings to its sleeping mother in a tree. It hovers above a loudly snoring elephant and glides over large and small creatures of the sea.

In my favorite full-color double spread, smack in the middle of the book, the owl stares eerily eye to eye with an unblinking fish - both creatures looking enormous, with eyes as round and white as moons. “A Book Of Sleep’’ reminds us that there are dozens of fine ways to spend the night. A giraffe sleeps “peacefully alone,’’ while dozens of dozing penguins “sleep all together, huddled close at night.’’

Daylight comes at book’s end with a burst of color - lemon yellow, sky blue - and all of Earth’s creatures awaken, of course, “except for the tired owl.’’

Originally published in Great Britain, there is something unmistakably non-American about the style and flavor of “A Book Of Sleep’’: For one thing, it is too stylized and flavorful. In childhood or adulthood, the small worrisome details of the daily world fall away at night, absorbed into darkness. This is the case in “A Book Of Sleep,’’ and both children and adults will welcome its strangeness and archetypical beauty.

Another marvelous, odd nighttime picture book is “Dark Night,’’ written and illustrated by Dorothée de Monfried, illustrator of Sylviane Donnio’s “I’d Really Like to Eat A Child.’’ These splendid, just-before-bed stories also were created by a European: De Monfried lives in France. Americans for decades have been the undisputed kings of the picture book world - splashy visual effects are, after all, part of our national genius - but in recent years American children’s book publishers have become more and more timid.

“Dark Night’’ begins with the classically spooky opening: “It was a dark night.’’ At once we meet the boy hero, Felix, in his bright red pajamas and slippers, “walking through the forest. He was very little and very scared.’’ Right away he spots a scary wolf, who is terrified by a tiger, who in turn is chased off by a crocodile. Luckily for Felix he finds a doorknob inside the tree where he’s hiding, and trots downstairs to find himself in the sunny yellow kitchen of a brave and clever little rabbit. “I will go with you,’’ offers the rabbit, and they concoct a plan to chase off the wolf, the tiger, and the crocodile.

The animals of “Dark Night’’ constantly change size and perspective; the boy’s own house leaps up out of the woods, leaning like a tiny Tower of Pisa. It is a cartoon world of dream-like shadows and dazzling light, pink grass, blue earth and lavender trees. The scary bad guys are run out of the woods, while the two small heroes share hot chocolate. De Monfried’s approach is joyful, innocent, dreamy, and bright. It’s filled with a leaping campfire and harvest colors - golds, oranges, sunny wheat colors - the perfect antidote to these long fall nights.

Liz Rosenberg is the author of “Home Repair,’’ as well as books for young readers. She teaches English at the State University of New York at Binghamton.

By Il Sung Na
Knopf, 24 pp., illustrated, ages 2-6, $15.99

By Dorothee de Monfried
Random House, 40 pp., illustrated, ages 4-8, $14.99

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