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The Night World

night worldThere’s a lot to like about The Night World, from Caldecott medalist Mordicai Gerstein. Unlike your esteemed leaders here at Calling Caldecott, I’ve never been on the Caldecott committee, but if I were, this book would be in my serious-consideration stack.

Let’s start with the dust jacket. It welcomes readers with a window, as a boy and his cat stare out at the night sky. We are behind them. It’s very inviting: Come see what we’re seeing. The shadows and the darkness also immediately establish a tone of mystery, but I don’t think it’s scary. There’s abundant wonder and even a sense of peacefulness.

Be sure to look at the dust-jacket spine, with its tiny illustration of the profile of a cat with shining green eyes. This cat, we learn later, is the very creature who wakes the boy and invites him outside, guiding the night-world adventure. The back of the jacket has a second window, also open, also inviting the reader in. There’s a slogan of sorts printed on the back: “What secrets does the night world hold?” I don’t know if slogan is the right word. I see these more and more on picture books, front and back. I’m not fond of them. I’d rather leave it to the artist to do the work to draw the reader in to the story — not advertising one-liners and the like, as if the book were laundry detergent sitting on a shelf. Is this a trend that will go away? I don’t know. Am I being unreasonable? Perhaps.

Take off the jacket, and you’ll see a different cover illustration of the boy, the cat, and the Milky Way: silhouettes for our characters; white eyes for the boy; shining green eyes for the cat; and white stars. All else is blackness. They stare in wonder. We also see this Milky Way sweeping across the endpapers, both front and back.

Gerstein gets right to work telling the story. Even before the copyright and title page, there’s an illustration establishing that the boy is going to sleep, as he bids Sylvie (the cat’s name, we learn) good night, and through that open window we see colors fading as the sun sets. On the title page, it’s completely dark, and we see the boy sleeping. On the next several expertly paced spreads, Sylvie wakes the boy, inviting him outside into the “night world” (“It’s too late to go out, Sylvie … or is it too early?”). They tiptoe through the dark house. Gerstein builds the tension well.

With each double-page spread, as they make their cautious way toward the back yard, the space containing the illustrations shrinks. As soon as they step outside, into the night world, the illustrations expand to fill whole double-page spreads. The illustrations grow as the night world grows. “There are shadows everywhere.” That Gerstein keeps the night-time world interesting is no small feat — especially once they’ve reach the back yard. “Where are their colors?” the boy asks of the flowers. It’s all shadows and outlines, and Gerstein uses negative space, the empty areas around his objects, to help define them. As the sun rises — which is precisely what Sylvie wanted the boy to see — the glow builds, colors blossom, and the “sun bursts.” This Dorothy-in-the-land-of-Oz moment is damn near glorious, and readers then see the relaxed, energetic lines of Gerstein’s artwork. But it’s those acrylics and colored pencils that really shine. Quite literally.

In a nice touch on the final spread, we see the nocturnal creatures sleeping in the shadows of bushes along the bottom edges of the pages. But Sylvie (who has successfully evangelized the new day) and the boy will have none of that: “It’s going to be a beautiful day!” the boy yells as they both run inside.

A closing author’s note on the final endpapers (no wasted space here) is short and sweet. Gerstein recalls a memory, at age four, of seeing his back yard at night and how foreign it appeared. “I’ve also been a great watcher of sunrises,” he closes; “to me, they are like watching the creation of the world.”

Will the committee choose a story that spends most of its time in shadows, employing a dark, gray-black palette? It’s not like there isn’t a record of books with night-time palettes garnering Caldecott love. A few examples: John Rocco’s Blackout (2012 Honor), The House in the Night, illustrated by Beth Krommes (2009 Medal), and Kevin Henkes’s Kitten’s First Full Moon (2005 Medal). Is it easy to overlook how hard it is to keep a book with limited color interesting?

Have you seen this one? I hope you have. What do you think?



Julie Danielson About Julie Danielson

Julie Danielson writes about picture books at the blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. She also writes for Kirkus Reviews and BookPage and is a lecturer for the School of Information Sciences graduate program at the University of Tennessee. Her book Wild Things!: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature, written with Betsy Bird and Peter D. Sieruta, was published in 2014.



  1. Susan Dailey says:

    Great review of a fabulous book! It’s on my serious-contender list, too. Not only does color come into the illustrations with the dawn, but so does depth and texture. I love the illustration of the boy and cat facing each other..and I’m not a cat person. Like your feelings about slogans, I’m not a fan of books ending on double-page spreads. (But it seems to happen several times this year. Is this a new thing?)

    I hope I’m wrong, but I’m not sure how the text will hold up to multiple readings (over a 2-3 day period in a secret room). I’m impressed though by the text placement. In a book filled with shadows, I bet it wasn’t an easy feat to decide where to put the words so they were readable.

  2. Thanks, Susan. I’ll have to re-visit the text (2 to 3 days in a secret room, as you said), but I hadn’t noticed any text hiccups before. And, yes, the text placement is handled well and easy to read.

  3. Martha V. Parravano Martha V. Parravano says:

    Thanks, Jules! And I agree: Gerstein does a spectacular job of capturing how completely different the ordinary world looks at night, without, as you say, making it scary. And the progression of double-page spreads as the sky slowly lightens and color appears again — and then the world bursts into full color! Also completely spectacular.

  4. Jules! Great review – always enjoy your writing. I have the book on order, and can’t wait to look at it. I’m a big fan of all the nighttime books you mentioned Also – loved, LOVED your comment about the one-liner on the back cover. I’ve been noticing this on more and more books too. I hope this won’t turn into some kind of practice – that would be unfortunate.

  5. I bought this yesterday after perusing a bunch of new picture books at our local Indie. Couldn’t resist it, and it’s my favorite of the books I’ve been able to see so far (which is a limited sample)–even though it has a cat. One thing I love is that as the boy and cat tiptoe out of the house, the text reads “Everyone is sleeping,” but the parents’ eyes seem to be slightly open. We then know that the boy and cat will be watched over. I love the loose shapes, the lightening sky, and the glory of the arrival of color. It’s a gorgeous book, one with mystery and wonder. Some of the other books I saw were snarky or thin or had been done a thousand times before. Hooray for Mordicai Gerstein!

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