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'Nightlight' shares the wonder of the North Woods

Speaking as a new parent, I can tell you that what you normally want from a children's book is something of a literary lullaby. "Nightlight" is just the opposite, but it works. The book is written by a Twin Cities writer, Jeannine Anderson, but i...

Speaking as a new parent, I can tell you that what you normally want from a children's book is something of a literary lullaby.

"Nightlight" is just the opposite, but it works.

The book is written by a Twin Cities writer, Jeannine Anderson, but it has a strong Northland connection in Duluth illustrator Nikki Johnson, a master painter with the Lake Superior Watercolor Society, and Duluth designer Joy Dey, of Pfeifer-Hamilton fame, where she worked on such important projects as "Old Turtle" and "The Quiltmaker's Gift."

"Nightlight" tells the story of two young bears, Aurora Mae and Borealis Burl, who awaken in the night to discover the wonders of the northern lights and fireflies.

As is often the case in children's books, the most striking thing about "Nightlight" is the illustrations. Johnson captures the shapes of bears and moose and other forest creatures with a playful, often abstract eye, and the scenes with the northern lights themselves are eye-popping. The effects available with watercolors, melding and blurring colors and shapes, are just perfect for capturing the phenomenon, as well as the dark shapes of pine trees at night.

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There's some wit in the images, too, such as one of the bears busily stuffing fireflies into a glass box marked "Firefly Lantern" and another where a bear is scurrying to escape a swarm of bees.

Across the table, these pictures got and held the attention of my infant daughter just fine, a good sign.

Dey's design is nice, too, with some clever use of colorful drop caps and some well-conceived pages to help tell the story.

And the story and writing have much to recommend them. It's always a bit difficult to read a book for young children as an adult, and especially as a writer and editor, in part because we tend to read much faster than the average cub. The first time I read through the story, it felt a little light on story to me. But then on a second read, a little slower, it became clear that that was the adult in me talking -- read at the bedtime-story pace, there's a nice flow and a nice shape to the story. The characters are fresher than they first appeared, too.

But here's where I do have one quibble. The shape of the story hinges on one moment, when the bears fall asleep and all the action begins. It's really crucial to know that the bears are asleep when the action begins. The trouble is, the verb chosen for this moment is "dozed." You have to really be paying attention to the tiny image above to be sure the bears are not lazily already looking up as the sky bursts into lights.

Other than that, I like the story. It's well written, and while Anderson's prose is not conspicuously musical, it boasts some nice internal rhyme and alliteration. Plus, how can you beat those names?

"Nightlight" is primarily about the beauty and joy of the northern lights, but there is a section at the end describing the science of both aurora borealis and pyractomena borealis -- the northern lights and the firefly.

Just one piece of advice: Read this story in the daytime, lest you have trouble putting your own cubs to sleep for the night.

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Review

The book: "Nightlight," Windward Publishing (Minneapolis), 2004

Author: Jeannine Anderson

Illustrator: Nikki Johnson

Design: Joy Dey

ISBN: 0-89317-056-9 (hardcover edition)

Cost: $16.95

Recommendation: The illustrations are striking, the design is nice and the writing is sharp but for one small but significant glitch. A nice North Woods children's book.

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