You know when a picture book is successful? When it can conjure up a feeling or a memory you didn’t even know you had. I remember playing in the snow at night as a small child. The contrast of bright white snow lit by the streetlights, and the jet-black sky above. In my experience, picture books that deal with simple subjects generally have a hard road to hoe. They either are accused of glutting the market with more of the same, or they are so unique that they’re told that they won’t find their readership. I find it hard to believe that The Snow Day by Komako Sakai will share either of these fates, though. A Japanese import from the creator of the equally compelling and mesmerizing Emily’s Balloon, Sakai’s title turns gray to gold. Any child who has ever watched flakes fall in rapid succession is going to get a kick out of this book. A title capable of finding the dreamlike beauty in stark reality.
When a little rabbit wakes up early one morning its mother assures it that there’s no reason to get up. "Kindergarten’s closed. It’s been snowing all night, and the school bus got stuck." A snow day! But rather than be allowed to run outside, the rabbit’s mother informs it that it will have to wait until the snowflakes stop falling. So together they play cards and watch the flakes fall from the balcony. At night the little rabbit is just about to go to bed when it realizes that the snow has stopped falling. So together, in the well-lit dark, the two of them go outside to play in the snow. They’ll play again tomorrow, and tomorrow daddy (stuck in an airport) will be home, "because it stopped snowing."
Since we are dealing with a child wearing a snowsuit playing in a mass of white fluffiness there are bound to be people who equate it with The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. That’s an unfair comparison on so many levels, though. I mean, both books have that slow, methodical feeling you get when you walk outside and the sounds of the world are hushed by the fall of the flakes. When the little rabbit in the book says, "Mommy, we are all alone in the world," that could sound twee or quaint, but instead it feels exactly right. Snow reinforces the loneliness that comes with silence. And while Keats chose to beautify the ugliness of a city with his white canvass, Sakai seems far more interested in beautifying the seeming ugliness of an apartment complex. It’s a different world and it inspires a wholly different feel. Keats’ book was all about experiencing the snow. Sakai’s book is all about waiting to experience it.
My edition of this book did not say how the art was made, but we can infer a little. Some paint looks like it came into play. The clusters of snowflakes falling as light masses of white are definitely painted. Crayon also looks like it was a medium. The moment when the little rabbit changes into a snowsuit (ears on his hoodie and all), a single red crayon line curls and pools on the ground, becoming the red stretch of yarn that connects one red mitten to another. And is that a thick smear of some kind of oil-based crayon or paint I see as well? It’s hard to say. Whatever its make-up might be, the book’s illustrations bring to life that cool gray light that comes on overcast days. The kind of light that seeps into every corner of your home, no matter how many lamps you turn on to banish it. I am always impressed by an artist’s skill with figures and landscapes, but lighting is the hardest of these. And the most impressive.
Sakai has cleverly avoided giving the little rabbit a gender. Lest you doubt me, this is not an easy thing to do. It takes a very very particular art style to make a convincing any-old-gender-will-do child in a book, regardless of what animal they might be. The downside to this is that because the artist has made the bunnies here look pretty much like real bunnies, however, they initially appear to be a touch expressionless. As the story continues, however, their faces melt a little, as when the little rabbit jumps out of bed for joy, or when the two go outside and make snow dumplings and monsters. Particularly in the latter scene there’s a great image of the mother rabbit watching over her little one, an identical smile on both their faces.
Children understand waiting. They don’t like it, but they understand it. They may not all know what snow days are like, or even what snow itself is, but the feeling of having to wait to do something fun is universal. This book is universal. A class unto itself, if you want to get lofty about it. If these are the picture books the Japanese are putting out these days, I think we should demand to have more of them translated and put on our bookstore and library shelves. A book that will please both grown-up and child and happens to be a little beautiful, just for kicks.
On shelves now.
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