The range of different going to school books varies wildly. This is understandable. After all, the act of attending school is one of the first moments of autonomy a child experiences. This is particularly true in parts of the world where children are trusted to get themselves to school without the constant hovering aid of their parental units. In America, much of the school year takes place when the days are short and nights are long. As such, "Singing Away the Dark" presents a going-to-school concept that I've not seen really done before. In this case, the fear of going to school isn't what the child will encounter once there. It's about the journey just to get to the bus itself. The fear in this book is far deeper than just a mere anxiety over classmates and teachers. It's fear of the dark and what it holds and hides, and how one small child can make that fear go away by simply putting her fears to song.
"When I was six and went to school, / I walked a long, long way . . . / I leave my house, so nice and warm, / on a windy winter's day." A country girl takes off one day on her regular trip across a wooded snowy mile in order to reach the school bus. The problem? The darkness of the pre-dawn is more than a little frightening. Fortunately the girl has learned that if she sings loud and strong her fears will go away. That doesn't mean that there aren't other things to watch out for as well (bulls, etc.) but in the end she sees the safe lights of the school bus ahead and she's made it for another day.
Ms. Woodward's story appears to come from her own youth of growing up in British Columbia's Peace River region. Her little bio at the end of the book says as much, though she has the wherewithal to include a tongue-in-cheek, "where all the children are brave and tough and where she really did walk a mile to her school bus stop, uphill both ways." There's just the slightest hint of Lake Woebegone to that statement, I think. Now Ms. Woodward's writing itself is spare and to the point. So much so that it took a third reading for me to realize that she'd written this story in rhyme. I see that lack of notice on my part as a good thing. Clearly her wordplay feels as natural as speech if the reader doesn't stumble over any awkward rhymes or phrases in the course of the tale. In fact, you get so into the story itself that the rhyming pattern is the last thing on your mind. "The cattle block the road ahead. / The bull is munching hay. / I softly sing to calm myself / and plan the safest way."
I have a special appreciation for illustrators that can capture that strangest of visual concepts: nighttime snow. It has a quality to it that daytime snow lacks. A couple picture books are particularly good at showing off the harsh contrast between black skies and white grounds. "Owl Moon" by Jane Yolen, illustrated by John Schoenherr would be the first example to come to mind. The far more city-centric, but no less pitch perfect, "Snow Day" by Komako Sakai is another great example. Morstad's illustrations are tricky because unlike those other books she has to present early morning darkness without so much as a streak of dawn. In essence, she has to capture that rare quality of distinguishing between night and day without relying on light to make up the difference. She does this mostly through the degree to which you can make out the heroine's clothing. In spite the dark, you can always make her out without difficulty. It gives you the sense that she exists during daytime hours, then.
Not that the images don't work on other levels as well. Since we are reading what is in essence a memory, Morstad had to decide whether or not to make the book look historical or contemporary. She's gone with historical, but very little actually dates the story. The little girl's clothes aren't obviously dated, since hats and scarves and mittens for kids rarely go out of style (and nothing as ridiculous as legwarmers pops up either). The girl's yellow lunchpail has a fine retro feel to it, but not so much that it stands out. As for the school bus itself, those magnificent methods of entling transportation have changed almost not at all since I was a small fry myself. They are the eternal yellow harbingers of schooltime. Instantly recognizable. Forever unchanging, no matter where you are.
It's the combination that makes "Singing Away the Dark" stand apart from the pack. Very few books about six-year-olds can show kids that age act in realistically brave ways. Yet a story about a girl who has to walk a mile in the dark and the snow all by herself is going to hit a chord. Even better is the fact that the book offers a solution to her problem: How to confront early morning scary darkness? The solution is practical and may inspire real life kids to do the same. Beautiful on both a visual and a literary level, Morstad and Woodward are a match made in heaven. If you're looking for going-to-school books outside of the usual fare that also happen to be easy on the eyes, this is one of the finer offerings out there. A real treat and a great little title. Well worth discovering.
For ages 4-8.