In Praise of Picture Books by Julia Jones

A dull evening in early February. All of us have been working, most of us are recovering from a fluey cold. We settle down with a box of chocolates and a new book: Suvi and the Sky Folk by Sandra Horn and Muza Ulasowski. “It looks good,” says my 4 year old grandson, Kemmel, judging a book by its cover. He's right, it's an effective, inviting cover – unusual colouring, those yellowy greens and the dash of violet. The lettering manages to be perfectly clear and yet also to blend into the flickering, transient lights. The contrast of the dark forest and the powdery snow is stark and there is a baby deer, alone, its shadow disappearing beyond the names of author and illustrator.

What you see is what you get. Suvi and the Sky Folk is the story of a young reindeer who becomes separated from her mother and the herd. Her Grand-deer has told her scary stories of the Sky Folk who live in the dancing lights. If you wave or make a noise, they will snatch you away to the place when No Moss Grows. It is the time of the long dark, when yellow-eyes and sharp teeth come slinking. Suvi is entranced by the ethereal pyrotechnics. She wanders away from the herd  …

Kemmel, Frank, Gwen, Hettie, Julia
Kemmel and Alice, when OMW is about
Frank read the story. He's a farmer and a cricketer and an excellent judge of a book. Gwen (aged 6) Hettie and Kemmel (both aged 4) were on the sofa looking at the pictures. Alice, their mother, watched them and listened to the words, as did I. Gwen cuddled up to her dad and took it all in. Kemmel was excited and responsive and ready to run to Alice's lap if the story got too scaring: Hettie seemed to be less engaged. She was playing with a toy and didn't look at the pictures so much but when Old Man Wolf appeared on the scene (and Kemmel fled) I noticed her tense and concentrate on every word. “Was that your favourite bit?” I asked her afterwards. It was a stupid question. Hettie may look fragile (especially when recovering from a cold) but she's imaginatively robust and loves being scared then feeling safe again. Old Man Wolf was easily her favourite character though there was a sinister owl with possibilities. 

I asked the children to tell me which pictures thay liked the best in this beautifully illustrated story. Kemmel spent a long time deciding and then chose the first page – the beginning of the Long Dark when the mother warns Suvi that “Yellow-eyes and sharp teeth will come slinking.” Gwen liked the moment when Suvi realised she'd had a miraculous escape. But was it miraculous? Alice and I – who had listened to the words , not looked at the pictures – were happy to accept that the Sky People could have intervened to save the little reindeer. Frank laughed at our credulity and Hettie pointed to the picture which provides the rational explanation. Lively discussion ensued ...

Kemmel's choice
the beginning of the Long Dark
Gwen's choice
the moment Suvi realises that she's safe

Hetti's choice
what really happened to the wolf
When we adults were talking afterwards about this story and other picture books we agreed that children's perceptions of what is frightening in a story are often quite different from adults. Alice's mother had queried her reading them Martin Waddell & Patrick Benson's Owl Babies (a story with some similarities to Suvi) as she felt it was so unsettling. I knew exactly what she meant though I think it might have been me who had given the book. In Owl Babies it it the mother who has left her children in order to go hunting and I'm sure I can't be the only parent who regularly has nightmares about not being able to get home to her family. The children waiting in Owl Babies feel that their mother has been so long away -- they trust her of course but ... it has been a very long time. It's a beautifully judged book and the reassurance when mother comes gliding home is delicious. 

The adult herd has been hunting for little Suvi while she has been having her lonely, dangerous adventure. I'm glad we don't enter into their anxieties -- the panic of a community with a missing child. I think that might be too much. The final reassurance  is tactile -- warm coats and nuzzling noses and once Suvi is snuggled back close to her mother she's not too worried whether the Sky Folk are fact or fiction. I liked the sense of something unresolved. There was lots to talk about in Suvi -- the aurora borealis, owls and lemmings in the arctic and whether or not Grand-deer's story had any truth in it. There had been plenty to look at as well and we sang the praises of clarity in children's book illustration as well as drama, humour and detail. 

Gwen explaining her point of view
When I was back at home with my partner Francis and our youngest son (now 17) we began to amuse ourselves by naming the picture books that would contend for a place in our personal top ten. The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Each Peach Pear Plum, The Cat in the Hat, I'm Going on a Bear Hunt, Isobel's Noisy Tummy, The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Mr Magnolia, Not Now Bernard, Hairy McLarey, The Enormous Crocodile, Only Joking Laughed the Lobster.  Already we reach 11 and that's without allowing more than a single entry to Dr Seuss and not considering all-time greats such as Peter Rabbit and Babar. The single quality we felt that they had in common was their capacity to breed ear-worms: simple, memorable, repeated phrases that are SHARED at the time and stick in the mind for decades. That's such an impressive achievement. Picture-book writers & illustrators, I salute you. Sandra Horn and Muza Ulasowski I thank you for adding luminous colour and a haunting story to a wet mid-week evening. Long live shared family reading.

          Note from Sue Price - 'cos I won't be able to comment today. Love this post! - And my vote goes to 'In The Night Kitchens' by Sendak. - 'Milk! Milk! Milk for the morning cake!'


julia jones said…
At the moment Suvi is only available via Sandra Horn's Tattybogle website.
Later this month there'll be Amazon availability and I'm 99% certain that Sandra has an electronic version planned. It's published by Tate Publishing
Muza Designs said…
Thank you so much for your wonderful review of Suvi and the Sky Folk.... We are both absolutely thrilled. Suvi is currently also available online directly from the publisher's site.
Muza Ulasowski (illustrator)
Lydia Bennet said…
out of many picture books shared with the bairns, my favourite of all is 'Peepo' by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. it works on several levels, one is the 'game' of what baby sees through the 'hole' and the rhyming text with it, which is fab enough, but WE see something so much more - it's set in the 1940s, and the incredibly detailed illustrations show a family in wartime, happy but with privations. It used to make me tear up to see the Daddy bathing his baby, we see him in civvies on leave then in his uniform, going back to the war, holding the baby to the mirror, while the baby has no idea of course what's going on and neither does a young child being read to from the book (until you tell them when they are ready.)
Lydia Bennet said…
Julia, you could post this on EE too perhaps? very unusual form of review but all the better for that! the book looks and sounds wonderful Sandra and Muza!
Sandra Horn said…
From February 25th, Suvi and the Sky Folk will be available from Barnes & Noble, and
What a lovely, thought provoking post. We loved Peepo as well. And Burglar Bill. (We still say - 'that's a nice whatever it is - I'll have that!') But Peepo had so many wonderful levels. My all time favourite though was and perhaps still is Go To Sleep Little Bear. Still makes me shed a tear. 'I've brought you the moon, little bear.' Not forgetting Jan Pienkowski and those tremendous pop-up books - Haunted House in particular. I still find our grown-up son occasionally rummaging through the big box of his old picture books under the bed and looking at them all over again! Me too.
Lydia Bennet said…
ooh yes and my daughter loved the Hairy McLairy book - I think there was more than one? 'and around came Scarface Claw...' Also loved the Jane Hissey Old Bear books, the beautiful illustrations, apparently done with coloured pencils! thanks for the info Sandra.
julia jones said…
Thanks Lydia - perhaps I should cross post to EE for the next publication day (Feb 25th) It hovers beteen review and celebration. YES to Peepo, btw and all you say about it is right yet somehow if i was only allowed one Ahlberg I'd still choose Each Peach. Had a happy time this Christmas remembering that Every Household needs a Raymond Briggs Father Christmas - much more fun than The Snowman
Susan Price said…
The Postmen books!

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