by Sam Juliano
The Horn Book’s Martha V. Parravano stated in her “Calling Caldecott” review of Before Morning by Joyce Sidman and Beth Krommes, “I’m not sure there’s another 2016 picture book that delineates mood so beautifully.” Though I’d pose that Michelle Cuevas and Erin E. Stead’s intoxicating The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles pushes mighty close in that department, I do in the end have to concur with Parravano. This is not the first time Sidman and Krommes have explored nature’s wonderments -their Swirl by Swirl altered long held perceptions in the miraculous wedding of lilting lyricism and ravishing watercolor scratchcard illustrations. The two artists are at it again in Before Morning, a Frostian confection that whisks the reader off into the realm of invocations, where King Midas-like wishes are granted bringing a soothing serenity to a place always operating in the fast lane. Before Morning operates under the auspices that if you quietly beseech the powers-that-be, a metaphysical response will alter a naturally ordained chain of events, and bring this intended sequence to a screeching halt. Sidman, in the most perfectly placed and evoked sixty-six words one can possibly imagine in the pages of a picture book has conjured up some spiritual forces -represented on Earth by stone angels in the park- and there is no chance to parlay wishes a la The Monkey’s Paw, the change here is one of permanence, an improbable meteorological aberration willed by positive application that will comfortably blend in with a documentation of prior weather-related events.
The idea of a child wishing for snow during the winter so schools can shut down is no doubt as old as the institutions themselves, but the sagacity of the plea and the all-encompassing scene specific changes that would adorn this wintry transformation -conveyed in Sidman’s brilliant sensory and metaphorical words- make this invocation so much more worthy and in tune with a real appreciation of the environment, physical beauty and a firm grasp of what may have just been a fleeting figment or an image flashing by in a dream. The exquisite front cover features a look into the window of impressively furnished suburban home where a young girl is snuggled in bed. Observant readers will immediately conclude that aviation has something to do with this family based on a model airplane, a globe and a book on Amelia Earhart that are lying around. A bonanza of snow crystals woven into this indelible tapestry portend the story arc, but they appear to have been sent down by a spiritual entity, one responding to a child’s deepest hankerings. One can almost envision Glinda in her blue sequined dress waving a magic wand in circles much like she did to create snow to foil the wicked witch of the west in the field of lilies leading up to the Emerald City. But the young child in Before Morning isn’t in any kind of danger or in need of a protector, rather she is trying to bring about a real sense of appreciation that sadly is missing in a world where everything is taken for granted.
The end papers introduce the metaphysical elements as an ominous sky begins to shape up above the loveliest quaint hamlet anyone would want to reside in. Unbeknownst to the residents far too accustomed to the edicts of weather forecasters, a sudden alteration in the natural course will have many as surprised as those in the Big Apple back in the 40’s when a monstrous blizzard seemed sent on by an angered power. A sublime overhead double page spread of the front of the house and the girl’s mom holding her hand as they head off to some local shops. The next canvas reveals what is certainly the girl’s favorite stop of all – the bakery where round breads, long loaves and pastries vie for purchasing. Then back to the home, the close-up of which is a veritable font of elegance courtesy of Krommes’ s stunning scratchcard art. Then on to the role-reversal within where a devoted Dad mans the kitchen while the now-evident flight pilot Mom cozies up with her daughter in the living room. At this point Sidman begins her captivating prose. Spare, meditative, buoyant and moodily evocative she first addresses a household of woolen scarves, coats, pocketbooks, pillows, a tablecloth and even a bone for those who like literal references, a cat playing with a ball of yarn, she intones in glorious descriptive overload: In the deep woolen dark. The next canvas is two-pronged: one replicates the cover where the girl is in meditative slumber, as the other documents the departure of the mom, who is heading out to pilot another flight, as the paranormal activity launches.
The first of Krommes’s spectacularly beautiful tapestries follows in the form of a swirling eviction notice served up by nature that ushers out the fall with its orange and yellow splendor and paves the way for the blue and white hues of the winter. Birds furiously fly above catching up to this unannounced change of plans, which on the next air born canvas equates their feathery flight as filling the air. Again Krommes paints this transformation with stunning beauty, and doubles up in response to Sidman’s lyrical extension: the earth turn to sugar, with a park landscape and a multi-leveled fountain quickly turning white as horse-drawn carriages head down an inside path. But this erstwhile illustrator of sumptuous pictorials is only just getting revved up as the next canvas yields a winterscape of statues now covered with snow, a cosmetic adornment that Sidman metaphorically opines as And all that is heavy…turn light. Of course ‘light’ has two meanings: Sidman’s use of the word also refers to the lit up park and the beautification it now emblazons. The first view of the stone angel who seemingly sets this unlikely series of events in motion appears in this resplendent picture, one that may have older children or adults reciting to themselves: The only other sound’s the sweep of easy wind and downy flake. In answer to Sidman’s Let quick things be swaddled Krommes deadens the pace of vehicles and well-clothed adventurers of both the two and four-legged variety.
Inevitably the airport becomes a kind of way lay station with cancelled and delayed flights in abundance, reducing urgent travel plans to uncertainty, and those affected to finding the small ways to pass the time. Complicating the impossible situation is Sidman’s line Let pathways be hidden from sight as snowplows make their way through mounting accumulation. Veteran picture book lovers can dream of Virginia Lee Burton’s Katy and the Big Snow saving the day, but then again what beholder of Before Morning is really in opposition of this gleeful intrusion from the Snow Gods? The airplane pilot mom returns and embraces her ecstatic daughter, enjoying every second at the breakfast table, sledding down a path between some of the most exquisitely drawn snow covered trees the most passionate adherent of winter could possibly conjure up and the colorful snow board canvas, where the “white” of Sidman’s most economic descriptor of all is an omnipresent phenomenon. Another trip to the Bakery, still open adds more to this most memorable of days and at home Dad serves hot beverages and the box of sweets just picked up and mom and daughter share some quality time in the living room.
The final illustrations confirms the stone angel in the park as the celestial go-between in this wintry epiphany opposite an afterward by Sidman attesting to the power of words. Before Morning is not just a stellar example of magnificent, awe-inspiring art meeting up with concise lyricism but it is an affirmation of yearning and how we all must stop and behold the world around us. When we do the humanist implications will be epic. The Caldecott committee will be hard-pressed not to include this book in the winner’s circle. Krommes is a master and this may well be her greatest work yet. Sidman’s language of course is just as vital a reason why Before Morning is one of the very best picture books of the year. This is not the first time that the celebrated poet-author has provided the language for a winter book with extraordinarily beautiful art. Her collaboration with Rick Allen, Winter Bees, produced a masterwork that was also discussed vigorously for Caldecott attention. The same scrutiny is urged upon the committee in next week’s deliberations. Krommes already won a Caldecott Medal for the gorgeous The House in the Night but she has pretty much equaled that remarkable achievement with Before Morning.
Note: This is the fifty-first entry in the ongoing 2016 Caldecott Medal Contender series. The series does not purport to predict what the committee will choose, rather it attempts to gauge what the writer feels should be in the running. In most instances the books that are featured in the series have been touted as contenders in various online round-ups, but for the ones that are not, the inclusions are a humble plea to the committee for consideration. It is anticipated the series will include in the neighborhood of around 50 titles; the order which they are being presented in is arbitrary, as every book in this series is a contender. Some of my top favorites of the lot will be done near the end. The awards will be announced on January 23rd, hence the reviews will continue till two from the days before that date.