Saturday, 12 July 2014

Under the Night Sky: It’s a Book Trying to Teach Life Lessons… Trying Being The Key Word

 A Review By: Amelia
Winter is my favourite time of year; and that’s not just something I say because I’m Canadian! I really do love winter! I love the snow and the cold air. The hot chocolate and how it gets dark early. And anyone from a Northern climate will fondly remember snow days during the school year! I only wish I lived far enough north to see the Northern Lights every winter. They’re just so magical, how they swirl around between the stars in bright purples and greens. It’s why I was drawn towards Under the Night Sky when I was browsing through the kid’s bookshelves. It’s a whole book about the Northern Lights! Sort of. But I’ll get into that later.

The story of Under the Night Sky is that of a working, single mom who breaks her routine one night and rushes her son downstairs to join their neighbours as they spontaneously decided to celebrate the beauty of the Northern Lights. The beauty of nature provides the mother and son with a special moment they can look back on with great happiness.

Amy Lundebrek, the author of Under the Night Sky, was born in Wisconsin and currently lives in Minnesota. She has a B.A. degree in Biology and enjoys outdoors stuff like hiking and camping, canoeing and snowshoeing. Under the Night Sky, which is her first published book, won a gold Mom's Choice Award in 2008 and a gold Moonbeam Award in 2009. As far as Anna Rich, the illustrator, well, I couldn’t seem to find a lick of information about the woman! She’s illustrated lots of other children’s books (that much is obvious from a Goodreads page listing her works) but when her name is entered into a search engine, there seems to be nothing (at least nothing I could find) So sorry Anna Rich, I’ve got nothing to tell the people about you!

Anyways, on to other matters–like the characters! There are two main characters in this piece: the community of people living in a blue collar kind of apartment building, and the aurora borealis, aka, the Northern Lights. Okay, so the Northern Lights can’t really be a character, so I guess that leaves the blue collar families. The main focus is on one family consisting of a single mom working the late shift at a factory and her son who is maybe growing up to fast because of his mom working the late shift. I don’t know to tell you the truth. There’s not much character in the characters! I think the characters were supposed to develop during the mother/son exchange that happens, but it only showed how the mother loves her son and, in a kid’s book, was there going to be any other feelings between a mother and son besides love?!

Now, now, now… I do believe we talk about the lessons this children’s book tries to teach and yes, it does have to do with the mother/son exchange mentioned just above. Under the Night Sky is about a whole group of working class parents that are trying to surprise and enlighten their children through the Northern Lights, which are admittedly pretty magical; but then again, I don’t know what the Northern Lights have to do with the ‘touching’ mother/son moment the two main characters have but I guess Lundebrek thought it would be meaningful. The whole exchange is a strange one-liner morality lesson in the midst of star-gazing: "When you get older, you and I might disagree about some things...Just remember these lights, how they dance." (pg. 20)

What does any of that mean right? I think it comes off a little phony trying to tack on a coming-of-age story or an awakening story or whatever she was going for. The (quote, unquote) lesson that should have been learned from Under the Night Sky is nature’s power, and beauty, and ability to transform the ordinary into something spectacular. You could have even had the theme of transformation apply to the child. Since the mother obviously wants him to end up doing better than working in a factory like her, she could have pointed to the sky and made a comment about how anything has the ability to transform and be magical. But instead the lesson taught is about how she wants the best for him and when he doesn’t remember that he should remember the Northern Lights. There are other overtones as well, such as friendship and community, but nothing is developed enough to really understand what is going on.

The art style of Under the Night Sky is quite lovely and is probably my favourite thing about the book. It looks like oil paints on canvas with many textures and visible brush strokes and blended colours. The outdoor scenes that take place under the Northern Lights are dark and jewel-toned, done mostly in tones of green and purple and it is very pretty. The illustrations are dark and mysterious, and you get a strange sense of fantasy from it that is probably appropriate for anyone who is a committed or even a casual naturist or stargazer!

Under the Night Sky’s best feature is by far Rich’s pictures. They make the story magical where the writing fails. Not to mention that there needed to be an explanation about what the Northern Lights are! They’re never even named (as the Northern Lights or the aurora borealis) and if it’s their purpose to be the focal point of the story, they need more information! Of course the story does have its good points. It was nice to see a book celebrating single-parent families as they are rare. And it’s always nice to see books about rejoicing in nature as we often take it for granted.

My final thoughts on Under the Night Sky are that it’s okay. It’s not the best children’s book I’ve ever read, but it’s not the worst. What was the biggest problem for me was that it just didn’t seem to fit together. The mother/son relationship, while cute, didn’t offer enough character development or a big enough life lesson to be anything other than something that felt tacked on: like an afterthought. There was no information about the Northern Lights, and, if it weren’t for the beautiful artwork, this children’s story just wouldn’t have a leg to stand on!

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