On rare occasions, a picture book comes my way that is so evocative, it feels like a lost memory from childhood, revealing itself page after page. Once Upon a Northern Night is a such a book. Oddly out of time, and yet timeless, Once Upon a Northern Night is a breathsucker, a gust of cold winter air awakening the senses. After several readings, I am still amazed that this glorious book has been in existence for a mere few months, not fifty years. The gentle poetry of Jean Pendziwol has the lilt and reverence of an old bedtime story, the kind without irony or guile. Like Pendziwol’s words, Isabelle Arsenault’s luminous illustrations belong to a bygone era of limited palettes and charmingly stylized imagery. If books have souls, then Once Upon a Northern Night is an old soul.

Northern Night pine trees

Once Upon a Northern Night is the story of a snowfall, a not unfamiliar subject in children’s picture books, nor indeed, adult literature (Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost, etc.,) What distinguishes Once Upon a Northern Night from other publications of this frosty genre is the aura of enchantment. People do a lot of griping about winter, especially those of us who see snow seven months of the year (or more), but a snowfall in the woods is an undeniably beautiful thing. Pendziwol and Arsenault do more than show us the beauty, however, they capture the utter magic of thousands of snowflakes descending on a tree-filled landscape at night. The ‘prickly hands’ of pine trees catching the ‘sparkling specks of light’, deer nibbling at frozen apples, a Great Gray Owl swooping across the page, an auburn-coated fox thwarted in his attempts at play with some snowshoe hares. It is a reverie; a dream-like celebration of a snowy winters’ night.

Northern Night deer

The narrator of this cozy fable is a  mystery, at least to this reader. Presumably, it is a parent telling a fanciful story to a child, but there is a whisper of suggestion that the ‘picture painted’ is not one of imagination, but of elemental direction~

“Once Upon a northern night, while you lay sleeping, wrapped in a downy blanket, I painted you a picture.”

Parental humility (or lack thereof) aside, I prefer to take the broader, more mystical view: that the narrator is nature herself, whispering details of an exquisite and loving piece of handiwork to a sleeping boy. Who wouldn’t boast of such beauty? Regardless of the hand that wields this particular brush, the painting is a masterpiece.

The simple palette is perfect for a chilly winters’ night: white, blue and black. Secondary colours like the burnt Northern Night treeumber of the fox, the red apples, and the soft green of the aurora borealis magnify the stark beauty of a landscape at rest. The tools employed include pencil, gouache, watercolour and ink (assembled digitally), and I suspect, a good kneadable eraser. The illustrations have an ethereal quality to them; shadows of detail created (perhaps) by an eraser or a daub of water. Lifting pigment is like drawing with white space; a visual tool in and of itself, and an effective means of controlling saturation. Indeed, all of the illustrations in Once Upon a Northern Night have a softness to them, a tonal balance that mirrors the ‘downy blanket’ of freshly fallen snow.

Once Upon a Northern Night coverNarratively, visually, Once Upon a Northern Night is a direct descendant of the picture books of the 50’s and 60’s. In particular I am reminded of  The Happy Day by Ruth Krauss, with illustrations by Marc Simont. While Once Upon a Northern Night celebrates the beauty of a winter snowfall (and the pleasure and comfort of a good bedtime story), The Happy Day is an exuberant tale of the first blossom of spring. A snowfall and a flower. Simple ideas, but in the hands of these artists, a thing of beauty, and above all, wonder.

Jean E. Pendziwol was born and raised in northwestern Ontario, where she draws on the culture, history and beauty of the region as inspiration for her stories. The award-winning author has published several acclaimed picture books including Dawn Watch, The Red Sash, and Marja’s Skis. Ms Pendziwol lives in snowy Thunder Bay, Ontario with her family.

Isabelle Arsenault is one of Canada’s best, and most celebrated illustrators. She studied graphic design at Northern night rabbitsthe Universite du Quebec a Montreal, and in 2004 illustrated her first children’s book, Le Coeur de Monsieur Gauguin for which she received Canada’s highest artistic accolade, the Governor General’s Award for children’s literature. Following this, she was a finalist on two other occasions for the GG’s: My Letter to the World, and the beautiful Migrant, which was also among The New York Times 10 best illustrated books of 2011. In 2012, Arsenault received her second Governor General’s Award for Virginia Wolf. She has recently illustrated the graphic novel Jane, the Fox and Me by Fanny Britt, forthcoming from Groundwood Books (and soon to be reviewed in this blog.) Ms Arsenault lives in Montreal.

Once Upon a Northern Night by Jean E. Pendziwol, with illustrations by Isabelle Arsenault. Groundwood Books, 2013

Migrant (previously reviewed) by Maxine Trottier, with illustrations by Isabelle Arsenault