Review of the Day: The Midnight Fair by Gideon Sterer, ill. Mariachiara Di Giorgio
The trick with any wordless book lies in how well it conveys information. Ask yourself the following question: When you finish reading the story, did you miss having words? If so then I don’t think that particular wordless book did its job well. Decoding the images in such books can be enjoyable, absolutely, but the best wordless titles are the ones that tamp down on confusion, offering the reader a plunge into storytelling beyond the written word. And yet wordless books must continually justify their own existence. No words? Then what’s the point? Never mind that they’re marvelous tools for emerging readers or readers that don’t speak the language. Their sheer universality is their allure. I’m sure that somewhere out there there’s a library dedicated entirely to wordless texts. If such a place exists, I hope that when they receive their copy of The Midnight Fair they put it in a spot of great honor. This book is an utter joy. One of those titles that lives up to, and then proceeds to exceed, the hype. Heck, I’ll say it. One of the best wordless books I’ve ever read. Full stop. Period.
The fair has come. During the day, people enjoy the rides, the food, the whole experience. But when the last of the people have left and the place is locked up tight for the night, that’s when the party really gets started. Out of the woods comes a whole host of animals. With the aid of two adept raccoons, the fair is open for business once more. Paying with acorns, flowers, and whatever else passes for currency in the natural kingdom, the animals indulge. They win prizes at games, try different kinds of rides, and generally have a high old time. Soon, though, the dawn begins to break and though they clean up after themselves, it doesn’t take long to spot what they left behind.
One element that I could not help but notice was the fact that Ms. Di Giorgio is of Italian birth. And as her little bio tells us, she splits her time between Rome and Paris (I weep for her). This would not be a particularly pertinent detail were it not for two things. One, it means that she is ineligible for consideration for a Caldecott Award. Two, her wild animals are not our wild animals. Often, I have noticed that when picture books are imported from other countries, the squirrels are always a dead giveaway. Folks like the German artist Sebastian Meschenmoser, for example, have a fondness for red squirrels rather than our own Eastern gray squirrels. In the case of Ms. Di Giorgio, this book is not an import, but her frame of reference would still be Euro-centric. I was pleased to note, though, that this is not something you’re going to pick up on very often. Yes, the squirrels are red squirrels, but they’re not abundant. And some animals we never see here are present like wild boars, hedgehogs, and badgers, but it’s not overt. Children from any number of nations may be able to imagine this scene happening in their own towns. Read this book enough times and you may even begin to recognize the animal characters. They repeat. You just have to quick enough to notice. For example, I took a particular pleasure in seeing how many times I could spot the wolf with the goldfish in a baggie.
The thing that I return to in this book, over and over again, is the sheer beauty of Di Giorgio’s center of focus. Near the beginning of the book is a single panel of popcorn tossed against a background of colorful lights. The popcorn is crisp and clear, while the lights remain a gentle blur. They’re the spots of light you see out of your car windows on rainy nights. Circular points of color, popping against the black of night. What I like so much about this shot is that it’s an introduction to the rest of the book. Di Giorgio’s ability to convey light at night is astounding. Whether it’s the neon red of the “Popcorn Cotton Candy” sign or silhouetted animals against blurred moving carnival lights, Di Giorgio almost looks as though she’s attempting to show the greatest number of types of lights at night possible. The medium she’s working in is watercolor, gouache, and colored pencil, and the end result is that she’s so good that you can distinguish the difference between twilight and pre-dawn light in the same way a sunset and a sunrise look different.
But let’s double back a second here and look at how one makes a wordless picture book. Unsurprisingly, wordless books owe much of their existence to an increased comfort (at least on the part of Americans) with comics. Sequential art is sequential art, after all. And sometimes, to convey your story most effectively, you need to pull in some panels. Di Giorgio is particularly good at panels, actually. She uses them to comic or dramatic effect, depending on the situation. Near the end of the book there’s this marvelous bit of storytelling involving the man responsible for closing up and reopening the fairgrounds. He walks in, whistling (one of the few speech balloons in the whole book, but it’s there) and suddenly his eyes cut to the right. There, on the counters, are the nuts, berries, flowers, feathers, leaves, and other forms of payment the animals left. We get a shot through the chain link fence of the man, mouth slightly agape, looking at what is past the fence. Turn the page and you are rewarded with this two-page spread of the mist rising before a forest, the sun just beginning to light up the trees, which are strong and dark and resolute. It’s not the only breathtaking image in the book, but it is the one I could stare at the longest. So Di Giorgio is taking comic and cinematic shots and weaving them into a picture book structure. It’s unreal how good she is at it too.
Now there was a small brouhaha involving the ending of this book, so I want to touch on that for a second. This whole adventure ends, literally, with the gentlest of plops. The wolf that won the goldfish isn’t going to bed like the rest of them. Instead, it takes the bag with the fish to the river. There, we see it tear into the plastic with its teeth. The clear indication here is that it’s looking for a tasty pre-dawn snack. Instead the final shot of the book is yet another two-page spread, only this time with the wolf gently dropping the fish into the water. Now an objection was raised to this image on Goodreads, pointing out that this is exactly how you get invasive species in waterways and the book wasn’t setting a very good example. This is a hard point to contest since, technically, it is absolutely correct. Folks that drop their pets into the wild have a habit of essentially ruining everything for the native species. That said, children’s books are chock full of beautiful moments you wouldn’t actually want to enact in real life. The last book I reviewed, for example, contains a beautiful poem about a girl who would like to release all her birthday balloons into the sky to celebrate the wind’s birthday. Is that a good idea? No! But it’s a metaphor, in the same way that the wolf freeing the goldfish is a metaphor. These are actions you can tell your kid not to emulate, while at the same time appreciating the message being sent. That said, I understand how this image might jar some people.
Reading this book feels like an eternal game of “Did you notice?” Example: Did you notice that the doe is always giving someone the side-eye? Did you notice that when the sun set it was on the far side of the right-hand page but that when it rose it came up on the left-hand side? Did you notice the saga of the stuffed bear that the bears won? But like all good things, at some point you have to put it down. I’ve seen traveling fairs portrayed in picture books before, but nothing I’ve ever seen has really captured the feel you get when you’re there quite like this. Expert storytelling mixed with gorgeous art makes this book stand out from the crowd. Come one. Come all. Come take a deep dive into this beautiful wordless world.
For ages 3-6.
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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