Moon Symbolism In Storytelling

Alphonse Mucha- The Moon and the Stars

OVERSIZED MOONS

There is a rule that moons in picture books must be bigger than the look in real life, from anywhere on Earth. I didn’t fully realise this was a rule until a beta reader for Midnight Feast asked me why my moon was so small. In fact, the moon was the ‘correct’ size, but then I realised why he had asked the question: Every single picture book I looked at had an oversize moon.

Why is this? I believe it’s because picturebooks don’t happen in the real world. They happen inside this other reality, in which size is all out of whack. Children can behave autonomously as adults; adults can behave as children.

For the record, the moon at the end of Midnight Feast is now oversized. I did change it. And yeah, it does look better.

final scene from Midnight Feast
final scene from Midnight Feast

There is also an oversized moon in The Artifacts, but because it’s in a picture book, it doesn’t look big, does it?

The Artifacts sheep moon

Why is the moon so important in literature?

  • A (large) moon can infuse your story with magical powers, even when the story is not of the fantasy genre per se.
  • The moon is a physical manifestation of fate.
  • A moon can be seen from everybody, anywhere on Earth and therefore makes a story feel universal, much like a myth.
  • The moon can lend a feminine feel to a story, since it is connected to the menstrual cycle.
  • The moon is comforting, since it waxes and wanes predictably.
  • In picturebooks, for practical purposes, the moon provides a great source of light, making night scenes glow.
Woman in lunar landscape 1955,Virgil Finlay
Woman in lunar landscape 1955,Virgil Finlay

The Moon ‘Incorporated’

Sometimes illustrators emphasise the importance of the moon by incorporating the celestial object into the design in a way that makes the moon seem part of the earthly landscape.

On the cover of Slinky Malinki it’s done subtly, with the glow from the moon providing an illuminating frame for the title.

Slinky Malinki cover

Which Witch’s Wand Works? by Poly Bernatene

Which Witch's Wand Works01
Which Witch's Wand Works02

Kay Nielson’s illustrations incorporate the moon more fully into the story, as the story requires:

East of the Sun and West of the Moon, 1914 Kay Nielson
East of the Sun and West of the Moon, 1914 Kay Nielson

This is a crystal ball, but we’re lead to associate the crystal ball with the moon.

Red Magic, 1930, Kay Nielson
Red Magic, 1930, Kay Nielson
In Powder and Crinoline, 1912 Kay Nielson moon incorporated
In Powder and Crinoline, 1912 Kay Nielson
EIN KÖRNCHEN FÜR DEN PFAU (1970) Helga Aichinger moon
EIN KÖRNCHEN FÜR DEN PFAU (1970) Helga Aichinger moon
They soared up into the sky and flew away by Sakura Fujita taken from 'The Moon and the Fishes' by Sukeyuki Imanishi. 1972. Gakken
They soared up into the sky and flew away by Sakura Fujita taken from ‘The Moon and the Fishes’ by Sukeyuki Imanishi. 1972. Gakken

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE MOON DEPICTED IN ART

One of the oldest portrayals of the moon was made at the height of the Bronze Age. The two-dimensional sculpture, forged from metal and gold, is called the Nebra Sky Disk because of where it was discovered in Germany. It dates to 1600 B.C. and is one of the oldest known depictions of the cosmos. Art historians believe it was probably an astronomical tool, hinting at how some Bronze Age cultures kept watch on the sky.

To the East and many centuries later, the crescent moon appeared in a sculpture called the Stele of Nabonidus. In ancient Babylon, King Nabonidus worshiped the moon god, called Sin, represented as the crescent moon. The king even gestures upward as a mark of his devotion. This piece dates to the sixth century B.C., during the last neo-Babylonian era, when religious worship of the moon was common.

NYT

Exception

In her illustrations of Beauty and the Beast, Schroder creates a fantastical moon which is actually smaller than a real moon.

Here's the Beast, looking very much like Beauty's little dog. He is depicted in this story as a chimera. Even more terrifyingly, his castle is full of chimeras — most startlingly, the table with leopard legs.
Here’s the Beast, looking very much like Beauty’s little dog. He is depicted in this story as a chimera. Even more terrifyingly, his castle is full of chimeras — most startlingly, the table with leopard legs.

Massive Moons On Book Covers

There’s a graphic design advantage to huge moons as covers — the moon provides a light-coloured circle upon which to showcase the title.

The Moonday Cover moon is massive.
This story was based on the author/illustrator’s dream.

Oversized Moons In Books For Adults

This design feature isn’t limited to kidlit. Adults and teens are also drawn to oversized moons.

Since Earth is about three times the size of the moon, the Earth from the moon would look about the size of a picture book moon from Earth. I imagine this is about right?

When I Go to the Moon, 1961, Leonard Weisgard; 1916-2000
When I Go to the Moon, 1961, Leonard Weisgard; 1916-2000

MOON EQUALS NIGHT; SUN EQUALS DAY

Here’s something you won’t easily find in fictional picture books: The moon out during the daytime. In picture books — as well as in comics, film and movies — you’ll find that the moon signifies the night.

Even our hand held technology reinforces this binary. Various apps on my phone use a crescent moon as the symbol for ‘night mode’, even though the moon is not visible every night and even though it is sometimes visible during the day.

Why is the moon visible during the day? It’s one of those questions you think you know the answer to until a child asks you. Then you might find you need to go look it up. Here’s a YouTube video for just such an occasion.

Moon As Part Of The Picture

The Cunning Little Vixen by Rudolf Tesnohlidek. This illustration is a good example of how storytellers sometimes pull the moon down from the sky and interact with it as if it were an object on Earth.
The Cunning Little Vixen by Rudolf Tesnohlidek. This illustration is a good example of how storytellers sometimes pull the moon down from the sky and interact with it as if it were an object on Earth.

Related Links

The Rule of Oversized Moons In Picturebooks — moons in picture books tend to be much bigger than in real life.

The Colour Of Sky — tell young artists, it’s not always blue!

from Bringing Down The Moon by Jonathan Emmett and Vanessa Cabban
from Bringing Down The Moon by Jonathan Emmett and Vanessa Cabban, in which a little mole tries to get the moon out of the sky.
Garth Williams illustration from 'Elves & Fairies' 1951
Garth Williams illustration from ‘Elves & Fairies’ 1951
Jessie Willcox Smith (September 6, 1863 – May 3, 1935)
Jessie Willcox Smith (September 6, 1863 – May 3, 1935)
Mostly greyscale June Moon poster from Broadway Music Corporation of woman and man looking up at yellow moon
Cover design and illustration by F. E. Phares, 1921 june moon
New Moon by Shirley Kite 1927
New Moon by Shirley Kite 1927
Miss Pickerell On The Moon by Ellen MacGregor, Dora Pantell and Charles Geer 1965
Miss Pickerell On The Moon by Ellen MacGregor, Dora Pantell and Charles Geer 1965
Cat sits atop a chimney on a two storied house at night
Illustration by Seymour Fleishman from the children’s book The Pussy who went to the Moon by Jane Thayer, 1960
When I Go to the Moon, 1961, Leonard Weisgard; 1916-2000
When I Go to the Moon, 1961, Leonard Weisgard; 1916-2000
A Rocket pokes out of a tower after a crash
Émile-Antoine Bayard (1837 – 1891) 1870 Illustration for Around the Moon by Jules Verne
Louis M. Eilshemius (1864 - 1941) City Street In Moonlight
Louis M. Eilshemius (1864 – 1941) City Street In Moonlight
Kawase Hasui illustration of moon at night behind wooden bridge with dominant colour of blue
Kawase Hasui, moonlight bridge
Fairyland Annual 1969 Stories By Joan Fisher, Illustrations By Hutchings, 1968
British painter Edward Robert Hughes painting of a naked woman posed as crescent moon in night sky
Edward Robert Hughes (British painter) 1851 – 1914 The Weary moon
Władysław Teodor 'W.T.' Benda (Polish, 1873-1948) The Earth and Milky Way and Moon 1918
Władysław Teodor ‘W.T.’ Benda (Polish, 1873-1948) The Earth and Milky Way and Moon 1918
Gustave Doré (1832-1883) 1868 A Voyage to the Moon
Gustave Doré (1832-1883) 1868 A Voyage to the Moon
View of Saturn seen from its largest moon Titan. Illustration by Lucien Rudaux (1874-1947)
View of Saturn seen from its largest moon Titan. Illustration by Lucien Rudaux (1874-1947)
Aspect of an Eclipse of the Sun by the Earth as it would appear as seen from the Moon Vincent Brooks, Day & Son (Nasmyth Murray), London, 1874
Aspect of an Eclipse of the Sun by the Earth as it would appear as seen from the Moon Vincent Brooks, Day & Son (Nasmyth Murray), London, 1874
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Header illustration: Alphonse Mucha- The Moon and the Stars

The Dark by Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen Analysis

The Dark is a picture book written by Daniel Handler, illustrated by Jon Klassen. A boy faces his fear of the dark in an archetypal dream house.

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE DARK?

Shortcoming/Need

Psychological Shortcoming: “Laszlo was afraid of the dark.”

You're not scared of being alone in the dark

In children’s books, characters don’t need a moral shortcoming. (In other words, a child character doesn’t have to be treating anyone else badly in order for us to find them a sufficiently interesting and engaging character.) This boy is the Every Child.

Desire

On the first page we can see what Laszlo desires: He is playing with his toy cars in peace and solitude on the floor, so he obviously wants to continue doing that without being afraid of anything.

Opponent

The Dark. “The dark lived in the same house as Laszlo”. Normally the opponent has to be another human or monster, but here the dark is personified, and might as well be a monster: ‘Sometimes the dark hid in the cupboard’. Daniel Handler spends quite a bit of time describing this monster and what it does.

Plan

Lazlo’s trick for keeping the dark out of his bedroom is saying hello to it during the day.

Until the phrase ‘But one night’ the entire book is written in the iterative. Now we see the switch to the singulative.

lazlo's bedroom

Big Struggle

But when the bulb on the night-light burns out (we assume at this point), the dark does come into his room. The dark challenges Laszlo to visit it in the basement, which requires a scary trip down several flights of stairs. (Why he doesn’t just turn that torch on and use it as his night-light I’m not sure. I don’t think we’re meant to think that’s a possibility, though I have to admit it bothers me some — I think it’s a minor shortcoming in the plot.)

Anagnorisis

Laszlo’s anagnorisis comes in the form of a lecture, delivered by the author, meant for the young reader. There’s a very Roald Dahl feel to it, because Dahl used to do the same thing (for example in The Twits, when the reader gets a — rather hypocritical — lecture about not judging people based on what they look like):

The Twits beauty

In The Dark we have:

You might be afraid of the dark, but the dark is not afraid of you. That’s why the dark is always close by.

Young readers are then told that every scary thing with dark insides is actually necessary and useful and, ‘without the dark, everything would be light, and you would never know if you needed a lightbulb’, which is of course the far more humorous thing to say rather than, ‘without the dark you wouldn’t get a good night’s sleep’, and is very Daniel Handler.

We assume Laszlo has achieved this revelation on his own without the help of a narrator, and now the open drawer in the basement looks like a smiling face. He has realised there is nothing at all to be afraid of.

The dark can be kind, helpful even.

The Dark, written by Lemony Snicket and illustrated by Jon Klassen, shows us the dark through Lazlo’s eyes, which at first is scary and menacing. But through the shadowy illustrations and the lovely one page monologue in the middle of the book, we realize that we need the dark, and by the end, we fall in love with the dark’s generosity.

Nerdy Book Club
New Situation

‘The dark kept on living with Laszlo but it never bothered him again.’

We even have the very same image bookending the story — the one where he’s playing with his toys on the floor. But this time the sun is in a slightly different place and Laszlo doesn’t look worried. Also, he no longer feels the need to carry a torch everywhere. This small detail shows that he has now overcome his fear of darkness.

Symbolism

Darkness

Darkness is of course symbolic throughout the history of literature and folkore and everything that came before. Below is a  beautiful excerpt illustrating the dark in words by Joyce Carol Oates:

The house looked larger now in night than it did in day. A solid looming mass confused with the big oaks around it, immense as a mountain. The barns too were dark, heavy, hulking except where moonlight rippled over their tin roofs with a look like water because of the cloud shreds blowing through the sky. No horizon, solid dark dense-wooded ridges like the rim of a deep bowl, and me in the center of the bowl. The mountains were only visible by day. The tree lines. By night our white-painted fences and the barbed wire fences were invisible. In the barnyard, the humped haystack the manure pile, I wouldn’t have been able to identify if I didn’t know what they were. Glazed-brick silo shining with moonlight. Barns, chicken coop, the sheds for the storage of machinery, much of it old, broken-down and rusted machinery, the garage, carports—silent and mysterious in the night. On the far side of the driveway the orchard, mostly winesap apples, massed in the dark and the leaves quavering with wind and it came to me maybe I’m dead? a ghost? maybe I’m not here, at all?

from We Were The Mulvaneys

Fear of the dark is at its peak in early childhood, between the time we first learn of the daily dichotomy and the age at which we can logically comfort ourselves that the dark is simply the absence of light; no more, no less.

Easy Answers to Hard Questions pictures by Susan Perl text by Susanne Kirtland (1968) why are children afraid of the dark
Easy Answers to Hard Questions pictures by Susan Perl text by Susanne Kirtland (1968) why are children afraid of the dark

It’s that in-between period of literature that seeks to reassure rather than scare. There are no monsters here; just nothingness.

The House

As far as picture book houses go, this is a castle rather than an inviting, warm home. The floors are bare. Hard surfaces everywhere. It’s the oneiric house of Gaston Bachelard’s dreams (The Poetics of Space). Of course a house like this needs a cellar. A story like this needs a cellar, because cellars are always dark. From other stories we have learnt to be afraid of cellars — murders and criminals and all sorts can be found in a cellar, or at least suspected, and even when you take a torch down there, the place is still cast mainly in shadow.

(Interestingly, my version reads ‘flights of stairs’ rather than ‘sets of stairs’. Flights definitely feels nicer to me. Is ‘sets of stairs’ an Americanism?)

the dark house

The way Jon Klassen divides his interiors into shapes and segments reminds me of some illustrations from the 1960s. Klassen uses shadow to create an extra layer of shapes, but the basic bones are somewhat similar.

Fairyland Annual 1969 Stories By Joan Fisher, Illustrations By Hutchings, 1968

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION

Illustrators have many different ways of illustrating the dark. For other examples, see my post Illustrating The Dark.

Geometry

Many modern books include plenty of white space — white is the neutral choice. But where black is chosen as a fill, the effect is dramatic. Here, of course, the black simply equals darkness. These areas of flat blackness emphasise the geometry of the pages. Here we have a rectangle and a couple of triangles, formed by the light from the torch. The triangles themselves almost form a monster’s mouth, with the bed-end resembling a grille of teeth. The effect of these strong, geometrical shapes is to complement the ‘cold windows’ and hard surfaces of this huge, unwelcoming house, which in real life might be nothing of the sort; this is the dream house of a little boy, and when you’re little, your house always seems much bigger in your mind.

thedark2

This kind of geometry really is well-suited to the horror genre in general.

by Levente Szabó
alternative film poster by Levente Szabó
The Beat Interrogation, 87th Precinct (1962) Edd Ashe reminiscent of The Dark Jon Klassen
The Beat Interrogation, 87th Precinct (1962) Edd Ashe reminiscent of The Dark, illustrated by Jon Klassen
Shadow

The verso image below includes a couple of interesting shadow. We can’t see what is casting the shadow in the foreground. Likewise, we don’t know exactly where that rectangle of light is coming from down the hallway. (We do know it’s from Lazlo’s bedroom, but we can’t see the bedroom.) All of this ‘off-the-page’ lighting lets us into Lazlo’s fear.

the dark hi he would say

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

It creeps all over the house.

I find it hovering in the dining-room, skulking in the parlor, hiding in the hall, lying in wait for me on the stairs.

The above is an excerpt from the feminist short story from 1892, The Yellow Wallpaper. Charlotte Perkins Gillman inverted the usual trope of the dark, gothic house and applied horror symbolism to yellow, a colour most often associated with sunshine and happiness. The attic at the top of this particular haunted house is an example of a well-lit room, which is quite unusual in horror. Then again, the author isn’t writing a straight horror story; she is writing an allegory for postpartum depression, pointing out how horrifying the condition can feel when you’re in it. She’s inverting the very hauntedness of the house, saying it’s not the house that’s haunted at all; it’s the people inside the house.

MORE

A Brief History Of Home Lighting

Night and Dark Symbolism

An ignominious and unexpected burden to his family, Paddy, as [Lafcadio Hearne] was then known, was reared in the prosperous Dublin home of his great-aunt Sarah. “His mind,” in the words of one of his biographers, was “dominated by horror from an early age.” He had a crippling fear of the dark, which was treated by putting him to bed every night in a pitch-dark room that was locked from the outside. 

Why Lafcadio Hearn’s Ghost Stories Still Haunt Us

SEE ALSO

The Dark is about fear, but some children’s books focus more on the excitement of prowling around the house at night.

 the stroke of midnight, Milly wakes up her big sister, Becca. It’s time for Milly’s first Midnight Club adventure! With Becca leading the way, the siblings explore the hidden wonders of their house in the dark. They dip into Dad’s jar of jelly beans, try on Mom’s coat, and make more mischief with the help of the Midnight Club president (their cat, Oliver!).

Exhausted from their midnight expedition, Milly is ready to head to bed, but not before she remembers the club’s most important rule: The Midnight Club must be a secret! The sisters quickly clean up before settling into bed. But they might have left a few clues behind …
The Midnight Club by Shane Goth and Yong Ling Kang
Phoebe and the Night Creatures Cover
It’s night time and Phoebe needs to go to the toilet. As she ventures down the hall she thinks she is being followed by monsters. But is she?
Frances Tipton Hunter (September 1, 1896 – March 3, 1957) An ad for Eveready Batteries in the October 1933 edition of Country Gentleman Magazine
Frances Tipton Hunter (September 1, 1896 – March 3, 1957) An ad for Eveready Batteries in the October 1933 edition of Country Gentleman Magazine

Fear of the dark doesn’t end with childhood. Stories for adults make equal use of the dark, or rather, what happens under its cloak.

In this American genre story wet in the Wild West, the good people have something the bad creatures want, so they attack the good guys’ cabin after sundown, when their evil power is strongest.
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Bears In The Night by Stan and Jan Berenstain Analysis

Bears In The Night Cover

Anyone who has helped an emergent reader with assigned readers knows the difference between an interesting early reader and a ‘slog’. Bears In The Night by the Berenstains is an early reader with a focus on positional words. This book is an example of a successful early reader because the story is engaging and children will want to return to its fun creepiness over and over. This is achieved by:

  1. Creating an eerie story with just the right balance of scary and humour
  2. Creating words with wonderful rhythm and judicious use of repetition.

STORY

Seven bears are tucked up in bed together. They hear a ‘whoooo!’ coming from outside, so leave the safety of their bedroom to explore what it is. When they discover it is a big owl, they rush back home and get back under the covers.

Berenstain Bears Whooo

WONDERFULNESS OF BEARS IN THE NIGHT

Picturebooks work best when the world of the story is exaggerated in some way compared to real life. On the very first page we see not just a young character in bed, but seven of them, all looking exactly the same.

Creators of picturebooks must find the line between ‘too scary’ and ‘not scary enough’, settling upon ‘intriguingly scary but not nightmare inducing’. The Berenstains have managed a perfect balance, with an owl which seemed far more scary before the little bears and little readers know what it was, and a final page in which we see the mother for the first time, and seven little bears fast asleep. Downstairs, the light is on and the mother looks content, with a reassuring, cosy surrounding: sewing in a rocking chair.

It’s interesting how often mothers perform the comforting role in picturebooks. This story was published in 1971. We are starting to see a few more ‘fathers as comforting figures’ in picturebooks, but they are still few and far between.

As for the text, this is a story in which the words build upon themselves, and I tend to find these irritating if there is too much text to read over and over again. Regardless of how much children like it, so often it’s an adult co-reader who has the arduous task of reading these stories, and I have seen some particularly bad examples in my time, one of which recently ended up in the bin.

This book, in contrast, builds upon itself in the best kind of way, often by repeating just the first phrase in a sequence, next by compressing all phrases — mostly on one page. This is a good technique to use following a climax, because when familiar phrases are seen on a single page the reader naturally quickens the tempo of reading, adding urgency to the need to get back to safety. Another classic book which makes use of this technique is Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy. The language in Hairy Maclary is more complex because the words carry more of the story, but the repetition works because the names of the dogs have such wonderful mouthfeel.

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION OF BEARS IN THE NIGHT

This is almost but not quite a wordless picture book. Because there are so few words — and even fewer distinct words — the illustrations carry the vast majority of the story.

The choice to make stories about seven identical bear children offers advantages to the illustrator. We see a variety of facial expressions in the one scene, for example, without having to create a multiple of backgrounds which prop up a different, conflicting face. Also, when decoding picturebooks which show successive scenes, for example when a character gets ready for bed and we see several different ‘shots’ of the character, brushing teeth, putting on pyjamas and so on, young readers don’t always realise that each instance of the character is the very same character. This book avoids the decoding issue, and has a dual child audience of children encountering picturebooks for the first time, and a few years older when learning to read for themselves. These ‘crossover’ books are very useful to have on the shelf, because there are few things more satisfying for an emergent reader than to come back to an old favourite just a few years later and discover they can now read the words themselves (aided by general familiarity as much as decoding skills, perhaps). This gives confidence.

The seven bears almost resemble the blueprint of an animated sequence

When illustrating night scenes, many illustrators for children do this by using blue hues rather than darkening the tone. This serves well to create a nightscape which gives the illusion of darkness but without the element of scary — blue hues in bright hues are the ‘night light of picturebook world’.

When you read the book did you notice the white space? Good white space goes completely unnoticed unless you’re looking for it. White breaks up the blue of the night time, and has several other roles here:

A place to put black text, which needs to be super easy-to-read

Allows for differently shaped scenes across multiple pages of the same dimension.

Bears In The Night White Space
An example of white space

Though there is white space, these blue night scenes can look a bit flat unless there is a high-contrast lightsource. In this story we have a bright yellow lantern which provides a focal point of colour on every single page. The same yellow is used for a crescent moon. (Full moons are less common in this illustration style, more easily confused with the sun.) The intratext of ‘Whooo!’ is also yellow. Combined, this adds up to quite a few splashes of colour.

There are stock images illustrators make good use of to tell the reader ‘This is scary!’ The Berenstains have used:

  • the darkness of night-time
  • reflected light off the silhouette of the owl
  • spider webs
  • dark woods with sparse foliage and jagged branches
  • ghost stories as a sort of hypotext for the ‘whooo’ of what turns out to be just an owl
Bears In The Night Climax

One of the challenges when illustrating this particular story would have been the page layout; specifically, the need to include vast landscapes on double-page spreads. The spreads build on themselves just as the words do. On the most challenging double spread we see a bear climbing out of a window, climbing down a tree, ducking under a bridge, running around a lake, walking through two big rocks and running scared through the woods. The illustrator could have created a less engaging picture (though easier to illustrate) by drawing a series of ‘snapshots’. Instead, we see a birds-eye landscape view with compressed perspective.

STORY SPECS

  • First published 1971 in Great Britain by William Collins Sons and Co Ltd
  • Subsequently became a ‘Bright and Early’ book with the Cat In The Hat logo
  • Our Picture Lions version has exactly the same cover on both the front and the back, which is an interesting choice for children who haven’t yet learnt which way a book opens.
  • 15 double page spreads and a final ‘comforting’ page facing the colophon on the back cover.

COMPARE WITH

Phoebe and the Night Creatures Cover

Phoebe and the Night Creatures is a much more recent book (also an Australian band) published by Scholastic, and stars a single girl protagonist who is scared to get out of bed to visit the toilet.

Phoebe and the Night Creatures Double Spread

The mother in this story is a distant figure who appears at the beginning of the story and provokes Phoebe to become independent rather than as a comforting figure who appears at the end. Again, the scenery is a nightscape, but set entirely inside a house. Notice how a digital artist portrays night-time and intratext, and how the advent of computers has changed how we illustrate. Like Bears In The Night, Phoebe and the Night Creatures is a story that builds on itself, but in a different way. The climax comes later in the story, so the denouement is shorter. Scary things in picturebooks tend to fall into two categories:

  1. The thing wasn’t scary after all and
  2. The thing you were scared of was all in your imagination.

Or perhaps it’s best to think of picturebook scary things in terms of a continuum.

Continuum Of Scary In Picturebooks

There are many ways of illustrating night-time, and nightscapes are not necessarily less bright and cheery than daytime scenes. See: Illustrating The Dark.

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Illustrating The Dark

A British company has produced a “strange, alien” material so black that it absorbs all but 0.035 per cent of visual light, setting a new world record. To stare at the “super black” coating made of carbon nanotubes – each 10,000 times thinner than a human hair – is an odd experience. It is so dark that the human eye cannot understand what it is seeing. Shapes and contours are lost, leaving nothing but an apparent abyss.

If it was used to make one of Chanel’s little black dresses, the wearer’s head and limbs might appear to float incorporeally around a dress-shaped hole.

Blackest Is The New Black

The Colours Of Night

I have a Pinterest board called ‘Night’, because I’m interested in all the different ways artists show a viewer darkness, when in reality, night is the absence of light. If you’d never had much exposure to art then you’d be forgiven for thinking that a board full of night would look like a sheet of black. Not so! As Vincent Van Gogh apparently said, ‘I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.’

Arthur Sarnoff (American, 1912-2000) The Man Who Had No Heart 1953
Arthur Sarnoff (American, 1912-2000) The Man Who Had No Heart 1953

Apart from black and dark blue, various other colours depict darkness:

  • Purple
  • All the different shades of blue
  • A little more surprisingly: greens
  • Sepia tones
  • Orange (see Józef Wilkón’s picture of a boy sleeping outside in a bed. The sky (which he imagines) is orange.
Józef Wilkón Boy Sleeping
Józef Wilkón Boy Sleeping

How do illustrators depict night time without losing colour and form and interest?

Of course, there has to be a light source from somewhere, even if it’s just from a few stars. And there is always a light source. Light commonly comes from:

  • Moonlight
  • Lightning
  • Light coming out of windows
  • Street lamps or electric lamps
  • Torches and lanterns
  • Candles
  • Fire
  • Phosphorescent insects
  • Through keyholes and crevices

A light source can also be entirely made up:

  • From special objects, for example from the inside of open books, to light up the character’s face. The light may technically come from some reflected light on a white page, though can be exaggerated. Fantasy scenes are best suited for much exaggeration.
  • From a light source which is presumed to be slightly off-stage. Film noir is a good thing to study because you’ll find that shadows appear from unlikely light sources. Light can be artistically manipulated. A light doesn’t really have to exist in real life for the artist to make use of a convenient light source — but it’s unlikely to work unless the artist is manipulating light with purpose.
new yorker cover brightly lit city
The White Night by Adolf Fassbender
The White Night by Adolf Fassbender

Other Tricks

There are other tricks illustrators use to depict the darkness of night even when there isn’t a strong light source in the world of the narrative. Borrowing a film term, you might call these tricks non-diegetic sources of light.

1. At night scenes lose their colour, and so a simple desaturation can work to convey darkness. To maintain the focal point of the painting, an artist can desaturate some things and not others. Desaturation can be used alone to convey darkness. In fact, look at the picture and if it weren’t for the hues, it’s as light-coloured as a daytime equivalent.

shaun tan
chris van allsburg night
We know this isn’t a black and white picture because the moon is yellow.

2. The desaturation can take on a sepia tone, or ochre, or turquoise etc. In digital art this is easily done. Add a layer of colour over top of all the other layers (gradient, if you like) then set it to multiply. Lower the opacity to the desired amount of new hue. This same trick can be effective for daylight scenes as well, in which you can take the colour of the sky, then set it to about 5 percent opacity. This gives a unifying effect to a picture which may otherwise look quite ununified due to different elements being on different layers, or painted at different times.

3. A lot of artists make the moon bigger than is possible here on Earth. (Earlier in 2014 we saw the moon at it’s biggest in years, and it still wasn’t nearly as big as seen in many story books!) The moon can seem almost as bright as the sun, especially if reflecting off something light, like a blanket of snow. In illustrations where the moon might be mistaken for a sun, a crescent moon can be preferences. (Because the sun is never ‘crescent’.)

Paoli Domeniconi
Paoli Domeniconi

Although in real life the moon is sometimes visible during the day, this isn’t conventional in illustrations, where sun equals day and moon equals night. Even in night scenes without a moon in sight assume the presence of a moon. For example, in the Japanese Fireflies over the Uji River by Moonlight, artist Suzuki Shonen doesn’t show the moon — this would compete for attention with the fireflies, yet the moonlight reflecting off the road is evident, and the artist includes ‘moonlight’ in the title of the work.

Japanese Fireflies over the Uji River by Moonlight
Japanese Fireflies over the Uji River by Moonlight

4. If you’re not painting the dead of night, it’s convenient to add a band of sky colour on the horizon. A band of orange or yellow in the sky can tell us something about the time of day as well as lending colour to an otherwise monotone scene. Even in illustrations which are not set at sunrise or sundown, there is often an inexplicable light source coming from behind some houses or trees. The sky often gets lighter towards the horizon. In this case, it’s the top of the sky which gives the reader the night-time cues.

Notice how the sky gets lighter as it gets further away due to aerial perspective.
Notice how the sky gets lighter as it gets further away due to aerial perspective.

5. Some illustrations do nothing whatsoever with the hue or tone to convey darkness, apart from showing a character in bed, or telling us in the words that it is night-time. This seems to work! (See illustration by Gyo Fujikawa, in which the blue of the sky outside might be used equally to depict a bright, sunny day.) See also the book cover The Terrible Thing That Happened To Barnaby Brocket by John Boyne, illustrated by Oliver Jeffers. The turquoise and the purple form a limited palette which the reader is used to associating with night-time. The shades themselves are bright — and therefore appropriate on a book cover for children.

by Gyo Fujikawa
by Gyo Fujikawa

6. The pink illustration by Guy Shield shows young lovers kissing at the drive-in. This example shows that it doesn’t really matter what palette you use, as long as it’s a limited one, it can suggest the desaturation of night. The viewer also knows that it is night-time because that’s when teenagers used to go to drive-in movies. So the surrounding narrative is also important.

Lakewood Drive in by Guy Shield
Lakewood Drive in by Guy Shield
From Corto Maltese Fable of Venice (1977) Hugo Pratt (1927- 1995)
From Corto Maltese Fable of Venice (1977) Hugo Pratt (1927- 1995), an example of atomic illustration style.

7. In night time scenes some tonal diversity is still necessary — a wider range of tones makes it easier to create interest. With a little imagination, lighter tones can be exaggerated or made up. An imaginary light source is one thing, but there are also rain droplets on a window which may collectively add up to quite a light painting if there is something lighting them up. Fog and mist are also light in colour, and so a light horizon might be put down to that. Cities seem to light up from below, even in the dead of night. Bodies of water are reflective, and provide sources of light by virtue of reflection. (Presumably a moon.) In any case, a strong contrast between the foreground and the background helps greatly with night scenes. The foreground can be in silhouette (popular at the moment in games such as World Of Goo and also on YA book covers). In this case the background will be more or less in full colour. Alternatively, the foreground can be light against a dark background.

The Graveyard Book Italian Version

Illustrations for children generally depict the night-time in vibrant colours. The art below is closer to the real world desaturation of darkness.

Total Darkness

What about when the illustrator wants to depict true darkness, possibly because the darkness itself is part of the story? How do we show darkness while still showing some sort of picture? Jon Klassen worked with this exact problem when he illustrated The Dark by Lemony Snicket. He got around it by making use of the a silhouette technique. The light parts are surrounded by large blocks of black, in which neither the viewer nor the character sees anything at all, at least not until illuminated by chinks of light.

the dark lemony snicket jon klassen book cover

The same technique has been used by a variety of illustrators:

darkness outside the night

Strawberry Hill by Kurt Knobelsdorf is a painting of a house at night which is also very dark, even though there is indeed a light source coming from one of the windows and a small moon in the sky. Tsuta Spa, Mutsu 1919 by Kawase Hasui is a Japanese example of something very similar — a genuinely dark picture of dark. Even so, the three squares of light give the picture enough interest to warrant it being look-at worthy.

Tsuta Spa, Mutsu 1919 by Kawase Hasui
Tsuta Spa, Mutsu 1919 by Kawase Hasui
Strawberry Hill
Strawberry Hill

RELATED READING

Finding The Perfect Balance Of Darkness In Horror Films

THE WAY HOME IN THE NIGHT BY AKIKO MIYAKOSHI

The-Way-Home-In-The-Night-by-Akiko-Miyakoshi
The-Way-Home-In-The-Night-by-Akiko-Miyakoshi

A mother rabbit and her young bunny are on their way home in the dark night. “My mother carries me through the quiet streets,” the bunny explains. “Most of our neighbors are already home.” The bunny can see their lights in the windows, and hear and smell what they might be doing: talking on the phone, pulling a pie out of the oven, having a party, saying goodbye. When they reach home, the father rabbit tucks the bunny into bed. But the bunny continues to wonder about the neighbors’ activities. “Are the party guests saying goodnight? Is the person on the phone getting ready for bed?” And what of the footsteps that can be heard in the street as the bunny falls asleep? “Will she take the last train home?”

This beautiful picture book captures the magical wonder a child feels at being outside in the night. Award-winning author and illustrator Akiko Miyakoshi’s softly focused black-and-white illustrations with just a touch of neutral colour have a dreamlike quality, just right for nodding off to sleep with. The book is intriguing in that it contains twice-told stories, once as they are observed and second as the bunny imagines them. This offers a perfect prompt for young children to create extensions of other stories they have read or heard. A deeper reading could encourage critical thinking by comparing the different pastimes of the neighbours or, ultimately, what it means to be home.

Lemon girl young adult novella

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