Five Questions for Susan Cooper

"The Shortest Day, " Susan Cooper's 1974 poem honoring the winter solstice, is performed annually at The Christmas Revels. Now, Carson Ellis's gouache illustrations grace a picture-book version, The Shortest Day (Candlewick, 5–8 years), which imagines people "down the centuries of the snow-white world" as they greet the season. See also the beautiful cover of the November/December 2019 Horn Book Magazine featuring art from the book; and read our starred review of The Shortest Day here.

1. How would you describe the Revels for the uninitiated?

SC: A Christmas Revels sends its audiences home smiling. It's a unique theatrical mix of song, dance, and words, devised by John Langstaff as a joyous celebration of the winter solstice. It's full of hope. It isn't religious, it isn't pagan, but it cheerfully blends faith and folk, and for fifty years now it has been a treasured part of the Christmas holiday for thousands of families.

2. What was the genesis of this picture book version of your poem?

SC: I wrote the poem for the 1977 Christmas Revels, and somehow it has stayed in every Revels script since. With the rise of the internet, people began sharing it online, so we thought that maybe it deserved to be published, and happily so did Candlewick Press. They persuaded the wonderful Carson Ellis to illustrate it, and here we are with our beautiful family picture book.

3. What surprised you in Carson Ellis's visual interpretation?

SC: I love her personification of the light as a great sun-headed figure, wilting as the days grow shorter, leaping to power again when the solstice is past. And she magically moves the poem through time: children in past and present echo one another, illuminating the way we've all shared the same fears and joys through thousands of years.

4. It's coming — how do you mark "the shortest day"?

SC: I look out toward the ocean, from the almost-island on which I live, and rejoice that now the saltmarsh will be sunlit gold for longer each day. Then I go to the Christmas Revels, with my children and grandchildren, and we laugh and sing and hear David Coffin speak "The Shortest Day, " and we shout, with the audience, "Welcome Yule! "

5. And how do you "drive the dark away"?

SC: Ah, if only we could all do that, for keeps. Darkness and light will always be with us, in human nature as in the cosmos, and the best we can do is hope. And stay cheerful. And love our families. And vote. And, in my case, feel very grateful that despite my considerable age people are still reading the words I write!

From the November 2019 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Shoshana Flax
Shoshana Flax

Shoshana Flax, assistant editor of The Horn Book Magazine, is a former bookseller and holds an MFA in Writing for Children from Simmons University. She is a member of the Sydney Taylor Book Award committee.

Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.
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GraceAnne DeCandido

We have loved the Revels since my son was a small child, and own the recordings on vinyl, tape, CD, and iTunes. Since email began for me in1992 or so, I have sent The Shortest Day out to my various lists and colleagues each December. This year, I am so happy to be able to send the picture book to the grandniblings and some of the grownups, too. Grazie mille to Susan Cooper and all who brought us such joy in a form we can keep and hold.

Posted : Nov 14, 2019 05:27


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