In Owl Moon, love looks like a father and daughter owling under a bright shining moon.
“When you go owling / you don’t need words / or warm / or anything but hope. / That’s what Pa says.”
You’ll notice I wrote that sentence with line breaks, as if it were a poem. That was deliberate. This story feels like a poem. It’s only 752 words.
The illustration below that sentence is of a father carrying his daughter through the snow, toward home. That’s love. This love doesn’t need words; it’s reflected in every action, every quiet footstep, every animal hidden in the illustrations, to which you need to pay attention. (How many hidden animals can you find?)
The author of Owl Moon, Jane Yolen, who is also a poet, is prolific. She’s written more than 365 books, some for children, some YA, some fantasy, some sci-fi, and some historical fiction. Her latest is The Emerald Circus, short stories that reimagine other tales. Her writing has won many, many awards, including two Nebulas.
Speaking of picture books, Yolen says on her website, “The demands of picture books are so different from the demands of novels. There is a subtle dance between art and text which cannot be entirely planned for when the writer begins. A picture book writer needs to remain as supple as a dancer in order to accommodate a partner (the illustrator). It is the book — not just text or art — that has to be whole.”
She found a good dancing partner in illustrator John Schoenherr. Their collaboration earned this book a Caldecott Medal in 1988. Schoenherr passed away in 2010, but he illustrated more than forty books, among the most notable, Julie of the Wolves, by Jean Craighead George, and the original illustrations for Frank Herbert’s Dune.
Owl Moon is a quiet story, Although there are sounds — a train whistle, a farm dog, a second dog, Pa making the call of the Great Horned Owl — this story is “quiet as a dream.” And yet, the hardest part about going owling is being quiet.
“But I never called out. / If you go owling / you have to be quiet, / that’s what Pa always says.” And a few pages later, “But I never said a word. / If you go owling / you have to be quiet / and make your own heat.” Later, the child sighs, “and Pa held up his hand / at the sound,” as if to say, Hush.
“I had been waiting / to go owling with Pa / for a long, long time.”
Owling appears to be a tradition in this family. We know this child has brothers who have told her about owling. But we don’t know where the family lives. We don’t know how many people are in the family. We don’t know how the owling tradition began or at what age a child gets to go.
But even without those seemingly pertinent details, there’s still a lot to notice — how the cold feels, how the scarf feels, what Pa’s shadow and the child’s shadow look like. This child pays attention. I get the feeling that even if they didn’t see the owl, the excursion would have been a success.
Noticing. Paying attention. Those words always make me think of Mary Oliver, who uses them over and over again in her poems. In fact, knowing how much Oliver loves going into the woods, I like to imagine this child is a young Mary Oliver.
How do we teach children about quiet? Not how to hush in a classroom, but how to treasure quietness so that other sounds, other sights, other sensations, emerge. It seems some sort of outdoor activity is required.
And notice what creature the father and daughter have gone outside to see — an owl. Owls are in the same family as hawks and eagles. The Great Horned Owl of this story doesn’t eat birdseed. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes its diet this way: “This powerful predator can take down birds and mammals even larger than itself, but it also dines on daintier fare such as tiny scorpions, mice, and frogs.” That’s the creature they are going out to see in the moonlight. It’s not a cute and fuzzy bunny; it eats cute and fuzzy bunnies.
“When you go owling / you have to be brave.”
The child is brave, and I think she is braver because she’s with her father. Sometimes, in order to do something important, you have to stay up past bedtime and bundle up and walk where “things / hide behind black trees / in the middle of the night.”
We see the faces of the parent and child looking at the owl before we see the owl. Their eyes are wide, and Pa’s mouth is open. Then we come to my favorite sentence: “For one minute, / three minutes, maybe even a hundred minutes, / we stared at one another.”
When you’re a child, three minutes might as well be a hundred minutes.
After they see the owl, Pa breaks the quiet and speaks, and although the child knows she can speak again, she doesn’t.
“But I was a shadow as we walked home.”
In her father’s arms, she’s still paying attention, even if she doesn’t realize it. On the last page, she’s clearly hugging her father, although she might say he was carrying her.
Which brings me to the movie Lady Bird. The title character can’t wait to graduate high school and leave Sacramento far, far behind. She’s confronted with the fact that she couldn’t have written such a good college essay about her hometown if she didn’t love it. After listening to Lady Bird rail against Sacramento for the entire movie, this revelation comes as a shock.
Sister Sarah Joan: You clearly love Sacramento.
Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson: I do?
Sister Sarah Joan: You write about Sacramento so affectionately and with such care.
Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson: I was just describing it.
Sister Sarah Joan: Well, it comes across as love.
Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson: Sure, I guess I pay attention.
Sister Sarah Joan: Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?
Yes, Sister Sarah Joan, I think they are. And I think Jane Yolen would agree.
The next Children’s Book Club will meet Friday, March 9: We will read Roxaboxen, written by Alice McLerran and illustrated by Barbara Cooney.
“Megan Willome has captured the essence of crow in this delightful children’s collection. Not only do the poems introduce the reader to the unusual habits and nature of this bird, but also different forms of poetry as well.”
—Michelle Ortega, poet and children’s speech pathologist