Review of the Day: Sweet Dreamers by Isabelle Simler
You know how they say robots are going to take our jobs someday? And you know how they say that if you can describe your job easily then yours will be the first to go? A bunch of hooey, right? But while I might pooh-pooh the coming robot apocalypse, I gotta give those binary-heads a bit of credit. 15 years ago when I was a young, scrappy librarian trying to make a name for herself in the world, I ascribed very much to the mindset that art created on computers was easy to identify. It had that gleam to it, you know? A smoothness that inks and pens cannot match. It wasn’t until I discovered the art and books of William Low that I began to rethink my perceptions about the form. And these days? These days it can sometimes be difficult to find a picture book that hasn’t been manipulated on a screen in some way. And, in the case of books like Sweet Dreamers by Isabelle Simler, you could be forgiven for not realizing that it’s art constructed on a computer at all. Simler has previously wowed American audience with such books as Plume and the magnificent The Blue Hour. Now, thanks in part to the elegant translation by Sarah Ardizzone, she has crafted a new kind of bedtime book. One rooted in poetry, dreams, seasons, fuzzy noses, lilting words, and a type of scratch art never before made possible.
“Slung like a hammock, / the sloth dreams / of spring-loaded sprinters, / of rockets blasting off, / of pump-action spinning tops.” Twenty-seven animals all sleep, in different positions, times of day, and seasons. Some dream upside down and others standing up. Opposite each short poem, describing the dreamer, is a very close look at its face as it sleeps. Some have furry cheeks and adorable whiskers. Others are slimy, nasty, or just downright poisonous. Rendered unconscious, the child reader can press up close to them without fear of reprisal until, at last, we reach the very last creature asleep. It’s a child, just like the one reading this book, and soon enough you can bet that young readers will join that person in slumberland.
Before I say anything at all about the art, I want to give a little credit where credit is due to the poems themselves. I see a fair number of poetry books for kids in a given year, and when those books are translations I set the bar fairly low. As such, I found myself just delighted by Simler’s wordplay. Or should I say Ardizzone’s? Remember that Simler has been translated from the original French, and a good translator can be worth their weight in gold if they know what they’re doing. Each little poem feels as succinct and brief as a haiku, but without the limitations of the form. The descriptions are affecting. Bats surround themselves with “kite-fingers folded like a blanket”. “The elephant dreams in granite” so large that she feels “Planted by a heavy drowsiness.” And then there is the giraffe. “This elastic giant / leaves the acacia trees / to fold herself / into a slender snooze.” There’s no fat to these poems. In brevity they remain evocative. They even manage to work in factual information on the sly. The ant “gathers and collects hundreds of quick naps” while with “One eye open, the other shut, / the dolphin only half-dreams.” After reading through these I went back to the publication page of this book and found a credit there to the French National Museum of Natural History, “for their friendly fact-checking”. But since you’ll find no Bibliography or list of sources in the back, so I’d say this is better slated for your poetry section than your sleep-habits-of-animals section. Nothing wrong with that.
That same publication page that told me about the French National Museum of Natural History was where I learned that “the illustrations were created digitally”. Not much more is said beyond that. Not that I caught on right away. On a first read of the book I just assumed that I was looking at standard scratch art. The kind where some kind of black coating has been placed on top of a colorful undercoating, and you scratch away the black to get at the colors underneath. Only, upon closer inspection I was baffled. How was Simler getting so many layers on top of one another? Look at that first close-up image of the upside-down sloth. Notice that the little hairs on the sloth’s face aren’t all the same color. In fact, they overlap one another. I tried in vain to figure out how you could layer colors like that (multiple layers of colors, and you just dig in deeper to get different colors?). But learning that the art is from a computer doesn’t diminish the power and impact of these pages. If anything, it deepens my appreciation of them (no pun intended).
Simler strategically splits her book into different sections. After the title page the first thing you see is a wordless two-page spread of a large moon peeking out between the branches of a tree. These silent spreads appear nine times, each one featuring the moon and a new environment. If the moon appears above the ocean then we’ll see how the ocean denizens doze. If the moon is over a forest, woodland creatures sleep. It’s so gratifying to witness an artist unafraid to keep her book long, in order to put in each and every last beautiful spread. As for the poems themselves, I love pairing a distant full-body shot of the mammal, fish, bird, reptile, or insect on the left-hand page, coupling it with an up-close-and-personal view of the animal’s face on the opposite side. Sometimes Simler will switch up the game, putting the face on the left-hand side and the poem on the right, but whatever her choice, it always feels just right. The zoomed in angles of the featured critters are sometimes difficult to distinguish unless you back up a little. So while this may be a bedtime book at its core, it’s actually a darn good nature-based poetry book as well. Just perfect for reading aloud to groups who would like to see it across a crowded room.
Every country that produces picture books for children will, at some point, rely on local animals for their stories. And when those books are imported into the United States you can usually identify the book’s point of origin by the kinds of animals included. In the case of Sweet Dreamers it is not immediately apparent that this is European (specifically French) fare. After all, the first two animals included are the sloth and the humpback whale. I found it interesting that Simler chose two animals that sleep upside down, though in entirely different situations. That said, the next animal is a “red-breasted robin”. Now the robins of Europe (I’m thinking specifically of England in this case) are different from the robins of the United States but they do both carry one specific similarity: red breasts. This particular robin has tucked its head under its wing, thereby cleverly avoiding identification. Even so, not many pages later you run across a hedgehog. Hedgehogs pepper the picture book landscape overseas. Here, they’re a rare breed. Even so, there are so many animals from so many places in the world, kids are bound to recognize quite a few of them, even if they don’t live in their own backyards.
A much quoted line from Walter de la Mare states that, “Only the rarest kind of best is good enough for our young” (I’m paraphrasing here, but you get the gist of it). Digital art is by no means uncommon, but rare is the book for kids using it to such a fine degree as you’ll find in Sweet Dreamers. By all rights it should just be another one of those rote poetry animal books, just with a sleepytime twist. Instead, it’s a deeply engaging, majestic, lush affair (if “lush” is the right word for all these tiny scratched lines). Luminous in its linework, this is a book begging to be shared and read over and over again. A little something for everyone, and a whole lot of something you’ve never seen before.
On shelves March 26th.
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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