Review of the Day: Last Song by James Guthrie
This is a very difficult book to review. When I review a picture book, you see, I need a “hook”. I need to latch onto some aspect of the product that strikes me as askew, or odd, or out of sorts. It sort of throws me off entirely when I have to deal with something . . . well . . . okay. There’s no other word for this. When I have to deal with something . . . touching. And not in a sickly sweet, big-eyelash, rainbows and unicorns kind of way either. Honestly sweet books, the ones that actually hit you here *thumps chest* are the bane of the average children’s book reviewer. And Last Song is one such book. Cute without being cloying, adorable without pandering, it’s a bedtime book that isn’t afraid to embrace its sweetness. Makes my job darned hard, I can tell you.
Just eleven lines of an old Scottish lullaby make up the text of this little book. In it a small squirrel family wakes up and the two kids go out to play. By the end of a long day they go back to the tree and watch the stars come out before tucking back into bed once more. Finishes the poem that makes up the text, “A fond goodnight / Wherever you are.”
The bedtime book is a respected institution. Wasn’t always that way, of course. When Goodnight Moon was first released it was only a moderate hit and wouldn’t hit its full stride until decades down the road. These days it’s just taken for granted that certain books are meant for tucking in small children. That is, in a sense, their purpose in this world. When Rohmann found this poem lo these many years ago, I don’t know that it would have occurred to him at first to make it into a bedtime book. For that matter, I don’t know that it occurred to him to make it a bedtime book while he was working on it. Maybe it just turned out that way. Whatever the case, the words are definitely lullaby lyrics. “Away / To the milk-white / Silk-white / Lily-white star.” Sleepifying. In a good way.
And you can’t help but respect the sheer flexibility of the picture book format. Here we have a stellar example of why picture books will never entirely leave the print format. Last Song is picture book minimalism at its best. First of all, this perfectly square title doesn’t have a book jacket. The cover itself contains a cutaway to the title page so that the leaves of the cover surround the interior sleeping squirrels (notice that one of the leaves covers one of the eyes of the squirrels so that when you open the cover it looks like one of them is just waking up). The title appears on the spine but not on the cover. Inside there isn’t the clutter of a publication page. Just the title page. The rest of the book is just Rohmann’s watercolors and the occasional line from Mr. Guthrie. I’ve seen books do this kind of aesthetic simplicity before (When You Were Small by Sara O’Leary comes immediately to mind) but it only works if it fits the text. In this case, it most certainly does. Any kid can open this book and instantly find themselves inside the tale. From the cover onwards, it’s pure story.
Artsy talk time. Rohmann’s going with watercolors this time around, which is a bit of a switch from his oils or the woodblock technique he used in books like My Friend Rabbit and A Kitten Tale. Since he’s dealing with an eleven-line poem in a 24-page book format, he had to figure out what to make wordless in his story. Heck, even before that he had to figure out what the story should even be. Setting it over the course of a single day makes sense, though of course the poem itself is entirely twilight and nighttime-based. With that in mind Rohmann made sure that the wordless sequences covered two-page daytime spreads. The result is that almost half the book takes place in the daytime with the other half at night, and even though most of the words are in the second half, you don’t get a sense of the book feeling lopsided. No small feat.
I’m sometimes accused of reading too much into the picture books I review. Well, I’m gonna do it again so back up. It’s a great book, absolutely, but you know what else this is? A tale of single-parenthood! Seriously, check it out. You’ve the parent squirrel in the tree and the kid squirrels down below. Give ‘em all a good count, though, because I’m seeing only three here. Children’s librarians are sometimes solicited for advice on topics like this. You might have a parent come up and say, “I’d like a picture book for a friend’s kid that has a single parent in it, but I don’t want the book to be ABOUT single parents or anything.” Honestly, that’s one of the hardest requests to answer. I’d be out to sea half the time, but if I can conjure up books like Last Song that’ll last me for a little while, at least.
A good lullaby, like a good bedtime book, gives you words that simultaneously sooth and give the subconscious something to play with in your dreams. By taking this old Scottish poem and giving it just the right form and format, Rohmann offers folks a bedtime book just right for kids both young and old. A beautiful little package and a very pretty, very sweet, very honest little book.
On shelves now.
Source: Copy sent from illustrator for review.
- This book was also featured over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.
Filed under: Reviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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