I’m going to come straight out and admit it — I’m kind of a choir nerd. Or at least, I was in high school. So when I pulled Sleep (Acroterion, August 2013) by Charles Anthony Silvestri from a box this morning, a familiar chord sounded somewhere in the recesses of my mind (nope, not sorry for that pun).
Sleep is also the name of a choral song by the great Eric Whitacre. As Whitacre explains in his introduction to the picture book, he originally composed the song with the text of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” in mind, but he was unable to secure the permission to use it. So Whitacre contacted Silvestri, who had written lyrics for his work before (including some in Latin — Silvestri is a professor of medieval history as well as a lyricist). And this was a huge challenge: not only did Silvestri have to write lyrics for music that had already been composed, but he had to keep certain key words the same — unsurprisingly, “sleep” is one of them — and had to match Frost’s complex rhyme scheme, a form known as rubaiyat. Compare the two poems: “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and “Sleep.”
Though it comprises the entirety of the text, Silvestri’s poem is not the whole story. Horjus’s graphite-and-airbrush art masterfully manipulates perspective and angles to portray a young boy’s “falling” asleep. Though the illustrations are sometimes overly grainy, subtle use of color indicates waking and sleeping, and the recurring motif of a feather guides readers from page to page.
This atmospheric book captures the haunting majesty of the choral piece well, although I’m disappointed that they didn’t include a recording of Whitacre’s music (there is a web address to a video starring Whitacre’s Virtual Choir 2.0 on the jacket flap). My favorite thing about Sleep is the many ways it can be enjoyed: the poetry is accessible but beautiful, the illustrations offer a complex story of their own, and the music offers an additional layer of complexity.