And there it was. Tucked between the banal and the forgettable on the shelves of my local bookstore. The Insomniacs, by Karina Wolf, with illustrations by The Brothers Hilts. The Brothers Hilts? Never heard of ’em. My first impression? Wow. My second impression, well, I didn’t have second impression. I was too busy walking up to the till. When I see a book like this, even just a few pages, it’s like stumbling upon a box of jewels. There is no question I’m taking it home with me. And so, I did.
The Insomniacs is a story of jet-lag gone awry. When Mrs Insomniac gets a job as an astronomer, she and her somewhat oddly-constructed family set sail on a ship to their new home ’12 time zones’ away, and subsequently experience great difficulty adjusting to the shift in daylight hours. With bags under their eyes and slumped shoulders, mother, father (who looks like Humpty-Dumpty with an upside down face), and daughter Mika shuffle through their daily routines, unable to sleep at night in spite of the hot baths, numerous cups of milk, and meditation. In a last desperate attempt to find a way out of their predicament, the family go in search of hibernating bears to learn the secret of their season-long slumber. Wandering through the dark woods at night, they discover an entire world of nocturnal activity, and a light goes on, figuratively and literally.
Yes, The Insomniacs is indeed a box of jewels, but this night-time story is all sapphire.
In my sleepless teens and early twenties, I often thought I should just toss the whole daylight thing and live my life at night, and I think I would have, had night been anything like the blue-infused dreamscape of The Insomniacs, instead of endless reruns of the Rockford Files and Ron Popeil’s Chop-O-Matic infomercials. In a stunningly beautiful two-page, multi-panel illustration, the night-time world of this unnamed land comes to life. Fireflies, reindeer, owls, strange-looking rabbit/armadillo creatures, lynxes and wolves with eyes aglow in the moonlight populate the darkness, joined by three surprised, but exhausted humans. Once they commit to a ‘revised’ schedule, however, things improve for Family Insomniac. Author Karina Wolf does a lovely job of describing their new, nocturnal lives:
At dusk, they woke and ate a breakfast of nightshade vegetables.
They dressed in midnight blue.
When the moon rose, Mother tended a moonlight cactus, and Father
watched the evening news.
Circadian rhythms cannot be ignored, even in children’s picture books, and sometimes turning things topsy-turvy is the only way to solve a problem. It’s certainly the most imaginative (and humourous) solution to chronic sleeplessness, and like the family in The Insomniacs, you always get first pick at the bakery.
The Brothers Hilts are actually Sean (Rhode Island School of Design) and Ben (Cooper Union), a sibling design and illustration team currently residing in Cambridge, MA. Incredibly, for their first foray into children’s picture book illustration, they’ve hit a home run. The art is gobsmackingly gorgeous, and wonderfully strange; some of the best stuff I’ve seen this year, or any year. Although there is nothing scary about The Insomniacs in the traditional sense, the moon-bathed illustrations and other worldly characters (including the animals) put this book in the realm of Edward Gorey and even Shaun Tan.
One cannot discuss The Insomniacs, however, without mentioning the blues. From cerulean to sapphire to midnight, blue saturates every page, with the exception of those few scenes reserved for the daylight depictions of family life, which seem almost harsh in comparison. Created in pencil, charcoal, and computer, the art has an etched feel, with exquisite detail set against moody, diffuse backgrounds. The most breathtaking of these pictures is the painting of bats, ‘roused and rushed into the night’ by the family who mistake the creatures for a ‘horde of mice’ hanging upside down in a cave. OK, so they’re a little naive, but the illustration is beautiful and macabre, and the single excuse I needed to buy this book. The Brothers Hilts are clearly versed in current picture book illustration, but they have somehow managed to be completely original. Who knew brothers could be so much fun?
Karina Wolf is a lifetime insomniac and, like the brothers, a debut picture book confabulator. Ms Wolf studied literature and film in New York, Paris and Dublin, and works in television and film production. She lives in Manhattan with her dogs Luca and Barry Manilow.
The Insomniacs by Karina Wolf and The Brothers Hilts. Published by Putnam, 2012
Watch the fantastic promo film for The Insomniacs HERE