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The Good-Night Kiss, by Jim Aylesworth

The Good-Night Kiss, by Jim Aylesworth

“On the night of the good-night kiss, a small green frog peeks out from under a lily pad.” The illustrations by Walter Lyon Krudop are beautiful – and they walk the reader through a series of animals watching the setting sun. The green frog sees an old raccoon, “sniffing along the pond bank, looking for something to eat.” And the ripples on the pond are a shimmering orange – while a dark red flower leans in the foreground.

The story travels to a new creature on nearly every page, and the book offers a breath-taking glimpse into the world of nature. “I have always had a dream of living the country,” the illustrator reveals on the book’s jacket, “and I think that’s where the inspiration for these paintings comes from.” In the light of the rising moon, there’s the silvery outline of a deer drinking from the pond. And Krudop’s next illustration shows that same deer – as seen from an owl flying across a field overhead.

The owls wings are spread in a spectacular array of feathers – matching the lines of the furrows in the field below. And in the next drawing, the owl’s landed in a dark window at the very top of a tall, red barn. Looking down into the shadows, it can just make out the dim colors on the shirt of a farmer. And the farmer’s climbing down from the seat of his tractor – where he glimpses a man in pickup truck driving down a dusty road…

It’s a beautiful book, and I love the illustrations, but there’s also something zen-like about the story by Jim Aylesworth. The man’s pickup truck pulls into a gas station – where it sees an enormous 18-wheeler that’s lit up in the moonlight. The 18-wheeler travels under a railroad bridge, and the truck’s driver spots the man in the lighted window of a freight train’s caboose. There’s moody night-time drawings for every scene, but Aylesworth keeps adding more and more new people to his mysterious chain of omniscience….

Aylesworth dedicates the book to “those who tuck them in, with love!” and it’s a hint about how he’ll ultimately end the story. I was expecting the series to end with one creature finally catching a glimpse of the small green frog that’s peeking out from under a lily pad. But instead Aylesworth ends his story with a tiny white moth, catching a gentle glimpse of a parent who’s giving their child a good-night kiss. And the book ends with two sweet, simple words.

“Good night!”

Peepers, by Eve Bunting

Peepers, by Eve Bunting

“Sparkle it up, boys… The Leaf Peepers are coming.” A little boy’s father drives a green bus for tourists to see the autumn colors around New England. His sons have to help wash the bus and conduct the tours. They’re reluctant passengers — but gradually discover that the bright-colored trees still look spectacular.

Eve Bunting wrote the text for The Leaf Peepers, and even the names of the trees sound attractive. There’s bright red sugar maples and shagbark hickory trees. Aspens shower gold in the water of a pond. It’s surrounded by speckled alder and red-feathered sumac. A beaver pops up, making a circle of ripples, which even impresses the boys, “because beavers don’t pop up that often…”

The tour visits an old cemetery, with headstones from 1772. (“Beeches and quaking aspens bend above the gravestones…”) The boys play leapfrog over the headstone markers. Their father scolds them, and says show some respect. And the tour rambles along, along with the boys’ own adventure…

James Ransome drew some great illustrations of the fall colors. There’s bright orange pumpkins on the title page – matching the orange of the autumn leaves. On the next page there’s more colorful trees around an orange covered bridge. He always seems to find the perfect pallet for his illustrations, using rich maize yellows and a bright orange-red.

Bunting dedicates the book to her son Sloan, “who loves nature,” and she does a good job of making the little boys seem believable. They see a pile of leaves on the water which they playfully call “Leaf Island ,” but they know that you can’t stand on it. “We’ve tried.” Yet the leaves still look pretty in the corner of Ransome’s illustration – which show the two looking down into the water. At one point, one of the boys even pretends to be a moose.

My favorite illustration shows an overhead view of a field where pumpkins grow. “They’re the color of leaves,” says one of the tourists. “Or else the leaves are the color of the pumpkins.” But the words appear in the sky over a tree-covered mountain. At its base are the houses of town, surrounded by trees, and an old-fashioned steeple.

And there’s another breath-taking illustration of the family’s house in the white autumn sky. It looks like an Edward Hopper painting, with rich angles and a stark light with shadows. Most of the leaves have fallen from its trees. On the doorstep, there’s a tiny pumpkin, and their mother has put up some dried corn stalks.

And by the end of the book the boys have realized that the night sky…is very beautiful.

The Sun’s Asleep Behind the Hill, by Mirra Ginsburg

The Sun's Asleep Behind the Hill, by Mirra Ginsburg

In 1982 Mirra Ginsburg adapted an Armenian song into a beautiful bedtime picture book. “The Sun’s Asleep Behind the Hill” reads like a lullaby, describing the arrival of a peaceful evening as it’s greeted by the creatures around the world. Simple words are written in bold letters – it could easily be a child’s very first book. But best of all, all the sentences rhyme!

“The sun shone in the sky all day,
the sun grew tired and went away…”

The breeze notes that the sun sleeps behind a hill, signaling “It’s time that I was still.” The leaves notice the sleeping breeze, and decide they’ll also take a rest. Soon the birds notice the resting leaves and also relax, and a nut-gathering squirrel notices the relaxing birds, and curls up in its hollow branch. Then a mother with her child notes the sleeping squirrel, and then carries home her own sleeping child.

“It’s time for you to rest.”

But the story holds one last surprise – one creature that discovers that all the world’s asleep. An orange moon creeps into the sky, and declares “I am alone!” The sun is asleep, the breeze is still, the bird is quiet, and the leaves sleep over the lake. Even the child is at rest, and the moon survey’s the empty landscape in a grand, silvery drawing.

“I am alone. And I will shine with a silver light
in the wide, silent sky all night.”

Paul O. Zelinsky contributed illustrations that are colorful and detailed. As the sun sets, there’s a cat on a fence, picnickers leaving the grass, and a man rowing a boat across a shadowy lake. Zelinsky uses pastel colors, and his colorful impressionism gives the book a friendly tone – even as the colors turn darker to show sleepers on a quiet night. Drawings of nature suggest a calm dusk, as a pink sunset reflects in the grey-blue of a lake. And sometimes Zelinsky’s careful illustrations seem to capture the magic of life, like the drawing where leaves of several trees are lit by the sun as their branches bend in the wind…

“The leaves grew tired, they do not shake,
they are asleep over the lake.”

The real purpose of a bedtime story is to lull a child to sleep. And this book seems like it could accomplish that with both relaxing pictures and a simple story that repeats the same words – all about how it’s time to rest. The book’s cover calls it a “just-right bedtime book.” And I’d have to agree.

The Gift of the Tree by Alvin R. Tresselt

Gift of the Tree - A Dead Tree by Alvin R. Tresselt

Breathtaking watercolors by Henri Sorensen help to tell the haunting story of a dead tree. “It stood tall in the forest,” writes Alvin Tresselt. “For a hundred years or more…” The tree grew and spread its shade, and birds and other animals nested in its branches. “Squirrels made their homes in ragged bundles of sticks and leaves held high in the branches.”

The tree is impossibly old – and it’s accompanied by animals – but nature holds more surprises. “Life gnawed at its heart,” Tresselt explains, describing in turn the ants, termites, woodpeckers, and even rot-causing spores that weakened the tree. Its branches “turned grey with death” – while baby woodpeckers hatch inside. “In winter storms, one by one, the great branches broke and crashed…” Soon only the trunk is left – but it’s a “proud” trunk, reaching to the sky with “its broken arms.”

It’s a story told through beautiful illustrations by Charles Robinson which give the magic old tree an almost fanciful feeling. The purple tree trunk spreads to leaf-shaped clusters of faded blue, yellow, and green. An owl spreads the points of its wings over snowy trees and a field of greys, whites, and blues. One painting even shows a cross section of the tree’s inside, where termites “ate out passageways in wondrous patterns.”

It’s surprising how compelling this story becomes. After a fierce wind, the tree falls, leaving only “a jagged stump to mark where it had stood for so long.” It’s followed by “the cruel days of winter,” where something special happens. In its hollow stump, a rabbit finds shelter. A family of mice settle into its fallen trunk. Even the ants and grubs can hide from winter in its bark and wood. Soon the sunshine of spring returns, and young acorns began to sprout.

Now it’s chipmunks that nest in the old woodpecker holes, and raccoons in its hollow trunk. But the book also mentions the carpenter ants and the termites that will play a crucial role. Soon there’s mosses, ferns, mushrooms and lichen, and eventually centipedes, snails, slugs, and earthworms. “The years passed, and the oak-hard wood grew soft and punky.” A family of skunks appears to feed on the insects in the bark, and birds also scavenge its bark, while “the melting winter snows and soft spring rains hastened the rotting of the wood.”

On the final page, there’s a new tree growing from the soil, “And in this way…the great oak returned to the earth.” It’s not clear if that’s meant literally – decomposing into the earth itself – or reappearing among the living. But the illustration seems to supply an answer.

There’s golden yellow sunshine filling the background as the young tree sprouts its new acorns and broad green leaves.