Sunday, October 25, 2009


Owl Moon
A few nights ago, my husband was working late. In the mad scramble to wash and feed and settle three young children by myself, I let everyone get too tired. My one year old fell over a few times and began to grizzle, so I popped her into the cot. Usually, she'd go straight to sleep, but this night she was overtired. So perversely she stood in her cot and shrieked. I tried to settle her again, and again, to no effect. But I couldn't see the point of having her up and crying, so I left her to scream.

And it was story time. And my five year old was in a snit. So there I was reading one of our all time favourite bedtime books, with the baby carrying on in the next room and the five year old flouncing and huffing all over the bed - and then the three year old accidentally elbowed me in the breast. Hard.

Between the crying and the huffing and the elbowing, I was so razzed up that I could feel my heart race. I wanted to slam the book shut and shout at everyone and storm off - and yet I couldn't settle the baby; I couldn't improve my five year old's mood; I couldn't make my three year old more gentle. So I took a deep breath and decided to let the story fix it.

We were reading Jane Yolen's Owl Moon. It tells of a little child who is taken out, late at night, by her father through the snow to look for a Great Horned Owl. They walk through the cold and the shadows in silence, until they come to a clearing in the woods. And there, as her father imitates the call of an owl, an owl hoots in reply and sweeps into the clearing. They watch the owl for 'one minute, three minutes, maybe even a hundred minutes' before it flies away. And in silence, they walk home.

It is a simple story, written in the most elegant prose. A train whistle blows 'like a sad sad song'; otherwise 'it was as quiet as a dream'. The rhythm of the words demands the reader slow down and settle into the telling; it is not a story to race through. Yolen's use of metaphor brings the comfortingly familiar into the strangeness of being out at night - 'the snow... was whiter than the milk in a cereal bowl' - such that the story successfully negotiates the fine line between fear and mystery. The child knows that strange things may 'hide behind black trees in the middle of the night' - but 'when you go owling, you have to be brave.' It alludes to managing fear and trusting a loved one without a whiff of didacticism.

The illustrations are spare and gentle. The eerieness of the woods is balanced by moonbeams shining through the trees and the safety of the father's presence.

Witness the power of story: at the end of the reading, my heart had stopped pounding and my five year old was snuggling close. In the next room, the baby had settled into a cross grizzle and was slowly winding down. And everyone was ready for sleep.

Owl Moon is a pleasure to read aloud. Further, it has the power to soothe a frazzled mum and settle a couple of fractious kids! As a bedtime book, it's hard to beat.

> Jane Yolen Owl Moon.

1 comment:

  1. How did I miss this post? I'll look for this one next week at the library. The nights my husband works late look like this sometimes too...