The Shortest Day

Cover of The Shortest DaySoon after I was assigned The Shortest Day for Calling Caldecott, I heard author Susan Cooper and illustrator Carson Ellis speak about their collaboration at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. Scrawled in my notes from that day is the sentence, “This isn’t a poem about merry feudal villagers having a party — it’s about deeper themes.” Ellis shared that this comment from Cooper during her illustration process helped her unlock what the poem is about so that she could create the picture book now in readers’ hands. So, what is this picture book about? What are those deeper themes? In other words, how does Ellis’s art achieve “excellence of pictorial interpretation of story, theme, or concept?”

To answer these questions, look first to the jacket, a study in contrast between light and dark, befitting the tagline on the back that tells readers this is a "celebration of the winter solstice and the Yuletide season.” Ellis’s masterful handling of gouache lends a rich opacity to black clouds that hang like a curtain above a stage-like, white, snowy foreground. On that stage stand five people, their small bodies clad in colorful coats and hats, rendering them jewel-like against the snow. They raise their arms to a blazing red-gold sun in the mid-ground that illuminates the scene, with less saturated washes of color making the most of the medium’s potential for translucency. Is the sun rising or setting? Who are these people? Their proportions in their winter clothes make them seem childlike, their exuberant postures filled with vitality.

Follow the children’s gaze to look again toward the sun. The dark swath of evergreens silhouetted above the snowy ground curves up at either end to meet the far edges of the dark clouds, leaving a floodlit, oblong space of sky that comes to a point at either end. The effect is to make the sun appear like the iris and pupil of an eye watching over the scene, which lends a mythic feel to the art, as though the people raise their hands in praise of an all-seeing god. Under the jacket, a blind stamp of the sun on golden yellow boards emphasizes the centrality of light in the text, and then warm red-orange endpapers give way to stunning front matter that eases the reader into the book proper.

In her conversation with Cooper at the Carle, Ellis called the massive gray figure, depicted on the half-title page, a sun for its head, “a sun-man . . . a figure who spans cultures, the mythic man who wakens, dies, and is reborn.” His presence is fantastic and awe-inspiring, in keeping with the tone set by the dramatic jacket art and deepening the book’s mythic sensibility. And who are the people in the foreground? Ellis said she was inspired in part by by Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1565 painting Hunters in the Snow when she began imagining human characters to populate the book. Never named in the text, here they sit by a fire, their backs to the reader, and gaze out at the horizon. They are humble, still, and watching. The next two wordless spreads are bathed in warm brown tones, then cool grays. The great sun-man, his now body collapsing among mountains, sinks below the horizon. Meanwhile, the Bruegelian people in the scenes, accompanied by dogs on a hunt and carrying spears, then gathering firewood, seem at one with the cold landscapes around them, going about their day.

This isn’t just any day, however; as the title tells us, it is the shortest day, the end of the sun’s year, the end of the sun-man’s life. “So the shortest day came, / and the year died,” read the opening lines. It’s an unusual way to open a picture book, and that novelty arrests attention on Ellis’s darkening scenes of people “down the centuries of the snow-white world” who “lighted candles in the winter trees; [and] hung their home with evergreen.” The art is largely redundant of text on these spreads, depicting people dressed in furs and holding candles aloft, as they emerge from humble stone and wooden homes festooned with evergreen to venture out into the snowy darkness of the longest night of the year.

[Read the Horn Book Magazine review of The Shortest Day.]

Illustrations begin to truly expand on text with the next spread as the people dance in a circle around a fire. Their formation is evocative of the cyclical forces that drive this text: round and round they go, just as the earth turns on its axis each day, just as it travels around the sun each year. On the facing verso, knock-out type on a black page reads, “They burned beseeching fires all night long / To keep the year alive.” Ellis depicts imaginary monstrous figures swarming around these words, symbolically representing the fear of what would befall humankind if the sun died and never returned. 

As Cooper stated at the Carle, that's what the coming of winter has always been for humanity in colder climes — fearsome. Though no one could (or can) keep a dying year alive, nor prevent the coming of the night, nor, at last, deny the inevitability of death, we can hold onto hope for the coming of the new year, the new day, the new life. Ellis depicts a group of people “reveling,” raising their hands to the “new year’s sunshine,” in an illustration that is markedly like the jacket art, though readers who make this connection will note that these villagers aren’t the same people as those childlike, colorfully clad figures on the jacket.

Then, perspective zooms in on the Bruegelian group for one last view of their revelry. “Through all the frosty ages you can hear them / Echoing, behind us — listen!” writes Cooper, and with the page-turn, Ellis pivots away from this scene of the distant past to contemporary scenes of children celebrating wintertime holidays together. Illustrations include symbols of Christmas and Hanukkah, as well as candles and fires burning, evergreen and holly decorating homes, and people singing in the new year. “They carol, feast, give thanks, / And dearly love their friends, / and hope for peace.”

That’s what this picture book is about, ultimately: hope in the face of despair, human resilience in banding together to face what seems unbearable, and finding strength and comfort in ritual, community, and shared history. A closing spread offers a final vision of the reborn sun-man striding across the land, children running along the snowy ground before him, his posture tall and strong, theirs exuberant. The poem, just twenty lines long, with just over one-hundred-twenty words, is displayed in its entirety on the facing recto. It’s a short poem about the shortest day — and also about the long history of facing it. Ellis has more than risen to the occasion of offering readers a visual interpretation of these verses, and though a golden Caldecott Medal might risk competing with her rendering of the sun on the jacket, I bet she wouldn’t mind.


Megan Dowd Lambert
Megan Dowd Lambert

Megan Dowd Lambert is an instructor at Simmons University’s Center for the Study of Children’s Literature. For nearly ten years she also worked in the education department of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.

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Molly Sloan

Megan, Thank you for your thoughtful introduction of The Shortest Day. This book has been in my mind often this fall and up on display on my library shelves frequently. However as often as I have glanced at and carefully considered this book during the darkening months of autumn, somehow I missed the stunning representation of a seeing eye in the sunset of the jacket art. My jaw is dropped. Wow. I was fortunate to hear Carson Ellis share about this book at the Portland Book Festival in November. She added a lot of depth and meaning to my understanding of the book. This book really is about some of the deepest, most primal relationships humans have to each other and to our earth and sun. Somehow Ellis’ art takes us back to that simple, raw relationship and then whisks us forward to modern day with all of our trappings and comforts that insulate us in so many ways. We seldom stop to consider the path of the sun or the time of its rising and setting. Kids, however, are much closer to the rhythms of the sun and sky. They feel the darkness when they are woken and shuffled off to school behind headlights. They notice that dinner comes in the glow of a kitchen light rather than on a backyard picnic table like it did just a few months ago. So I think this book is a powerful and important book for kids. It acknowledges the shifts of our time that adults get good at marching through. I haven't yet shared this book with my Caldecott Club readers. I am interested to see how it resonates with them. I do have one small critique to offer. On the "They carol, feast, give thanks and dearly love their friends and hope for peace" spread, the menorah on the mantle is empty. I see that the sun is still up so the night's candles would not be lit yet, but there might at least be candles in the menorah. Also, menorahs for Hanukkah (Hanukiah) are traditionally put in the window, not on mantles or tables. These details make the menorah feel like a token rather than real representation in an otherwise festive Christmas scene. I appreciate that the use of evergreens and candles, the singing of songs are taken from the rituals of keeping the old year alive. I just noticed the inclusion of the Hanukkah elements seemed a bit contrived, unfortunately. Otherwise, I love this book and would love to see it with a medal of recognition this January.

Posted : Jan 08, 2020 07:09


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