August 18, 2016


When the World Is Dreaming. By Rita Gray. Pictures by Kenard Pak. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.

Faraway Fox. By Jolene Thompson. Illustrated by Justin K. Thompson. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.

     Hugh Lofting’s Dr. Dolittle was renowned for being able to talk to the animals. Today’s children’s-book authors prefer to spin tales based on the notion that they can communicate well enough with animals to know what they are thinking – essentially to “think to the animals.” In the case of Rita Gray’s When the World Is Dreaming, this leads to a remarkably beautiful bedtime book whose sweet Kenard Pak illustrations beautifully complement Gray’s sensitive, thoughtful and imaginative text. The book opens with a quotation from Fukuda Chiyo-Ni (1703-1775), a Japanese poet whose verse asks the butterfly what it dreams of when folding its wings. This sets Gray off on a journey into the thoughts and dreams of various animals watched by a wide-eyed little girl. In the girl’s thoughts, each animal plays – and does other things – during daytime, then finds shelter, sleeps and dreams. The snake rests “after the wriggling, the sunning, the play”; the deer does so “after the walking, the grazing, the play”; the newt does so “after the watching, the crawling, the play”; and so forth. The little girl, Gray’s stand-in, gives each animal a vivid imaginary dream life, and Pak’s illustrations are so lovely that children may just sit and look at them again and again. The snake, for instance, dreams of being the tail of a high-flying kite, the deer of being “tucked beneath a mushroom cap” during a rainstorm, the newt of being transformed into a leaf to stay hidden. For each animal, Gray produces a haunting refrain: “Sleep, Little Newt,/ safe and warm./ Dream until the light of morn.” And “Sleep, Little Rabbit,/ safe and warm,/ Dream until the light of morn” (in this case dreaming of flying, using cabbage leaves as wings); and “Sleep, Little Mouse,/ safe and warm./ Dream until the light of morn” (dreaming of using a boat made of tree bark and a pea pod oar to row across a pond, away from a cat). At the book’s end, the little girl herself is “in a cozy bed, all tucked in,” as all the creatures she has thought about come to visit her sleep and give her “the best of all dreams.” This is so gentle, so lovely a book, that it will cosset children sweetly into slumber night after night and help them awake in the morning with warm and wonderful feelings about nature and the things that animals might, just might, dream about.

     The wife-and-husband team of Jolene and Justin K. Thompson has produced a beautiful nature book as well: Faraway Fox. But this is a different sort of book, one intended to make a point about human encroachment on animal habitats and the ways in which humans can help make right some of the things they have done wrong by spoiling the natural places. The argument itself is the weakest part of the book, being very simplistic and overdone – every single picture showing human habitation is ugly, and there are no people to leaven the dismal scenes, not even children in a playground. The story follows the fox of the title as he bemoans the loss of “the forest where I lived with my family” and searches through the angular, uncaring, dismal landscape of homes and yards and culverts that has replaced “the great shade trees” where he and the other foxes used to rest “after playing all day.” Of course, foxes do not really play all day – like other animals, they forage for food and try to avoid enemies – and there is nothing idyllic about animals’ existence or uniformly ugly about human settlements (many of which have foxes in them: this is an animal that is quite adaptable). The Thompsons want to make a point, though, so they show Faraway Fox, for example, huddling beneath a parked car during a rainstorm, thinking about his big brother and how the two foxes “both loved the water and we’d have contests to see who could swim the fastest and the farthest.” Faraway Fox is terribly lonely when thinking of his absent family: a scene of him crossing a deserted street amid fallen leaves and trash cans has real pathos despite being tremendously overdramatized, as is one of him standing in a deserted commercial parking lot. Finally, though, humans are seen in the book, at a place where there is a sign designating a future wildlife preserve, which the humans are building – and which includes a “new burrow” that runs beneath a highway and that Faraway Fox walks through to find, wonder of wonders, woodland on the other side, and his family waiting for him within it. “I am home!” he exclaims at the end, and children will surely celebrate the happy ending and rejoice with him – while adults will be interested in the author’s note explaining about engineered solutions for displaced wildlife and showing examples of accommodations that have been built in The Netherlands and Canada. Faraway Fox is so well-meaning and so tender in its imagination about how a fox that becomes separated from its family might feel that adults and children alike will be moved by the story and perhaps even want to learn more about how it relates to the real world – using the list of organizations at the book’s conclusion as a starting point. The problem with the book is that it is so determinedly one-sided as to make humans into caricatures and foxes into exemplars of perfection – an understandable approach in a picture book, but one that can be effective without needing to go as far overboard as the Thompsons do. Still, author and illustrator draw attention to some significant issues here, and succeed in producing a thought-provoking story that includes animals that are as beautiful to look at as the human elements are ugly. Reconciling the tale with kids’ real-world experiences and everyday lives will be a necessary task for parents who read the book with their children.

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