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Top 100 Picture Books #30: Owl Moon by Jane Yolen

#30 Owl Moon by Jane Yolen (1987)
55 points

When I read this book, I can feel and hear the snow crunching under my feet. I can actually hear the silence. – Susan Lang

It seems appropriate that just as the weather warms up for summer we take one last plunge into winter at its deepest and darkest.  This wintery tale marks the appearance of yet another Caldecott Award winner on the list and there’s nothing better for evoking the chills brought on both by nocturnal cold, and the awe inspiring appearance of meticulously rendered wildlife.

The plot as described by Publishers Weekly reads, “A girl and her father go owling on a moonlit winter night near the farm where they live. Bundled tight in wool clothes, they trudge through snow ‘whiter than the milk in a cereal bowl’; here and there, hidden in ink-blue shadows, a fox, raccoon, fieldmouse and deer watch them pass. An air of expectancy builds as Pa imitates the Great Horned Owl’s call once without answer, then again. From out of the darkness ‘an echo/ came threading its way/ through the trees.’ Schoenherr’s watercolor washes depict a New England few readers see: the bold stare of a nocturnal owl, a bird’s-eye view of a farmhouse.”

In the Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature Ms. Yolen is described as, “one of today’s most prolific and experimental writers of fairy tales.”  Because the entry is primarily concentrating on her work as it applies to the story The Lady and the Merman.  So it’s funny that while Norton’s mentions her various books, it doesn’t whisper a word about the fact that her book Owl Moon won a Caldecott.  It reads instead that, “She writes with grace and painstaking care to create tales that evoke the atmosphere of long ago and other worlds, employing metaphors and symbols in unusual combinations that produce new associations.”  And then here today we instead find picture book that is realism incarnate.

In fact, in Cullinan and Galda’s Literature and the  Child (5th edition) the book gives Owl Moon a close look specifically in a section called “Contemporary Realistic Fiction”.  Says the title, “The story is deceptively simple, for poetic prose evokes powerful images of the cold, dark winter night, the silence, the beauty of the woods white with snow, and the adventure that child and father undertake.”  And in terms of the Caldecott winning illustrations Cullinan and Galda go on to say, “His [Schoenherr’s] pictures correspond to what the text is saying, but they also transcend it.  His use of light and white space is extraordinary, making the dark spruce woods and winter night seem lit from within.  In most of the pictures the father and child are small, insignificant intruders in the forest of towering trees and pristine snow.”

Does the name “Schoenherr” sound oddly familiar to you?  Do you have the vague feeling that you’ve seen it on books recently, though perhaps not with the first name “John”?  Perhaps you are familiar with a talented young man by the name of Ian Schoenherr then.  An artist of uncommon talents, Ian is the son of John and has put out such laudable books as Cat & Mouse and (now on bookstore shelves) the unbelievably useful to children’s librarians Read It, Don’t Eat It.

In terms of Owl Moon, Jane’s website allows you to see the actual models for the illustrations in the book.  She also says of the title, “Though I envisioned the book in the little woods near our house, Schoenherr used his own farm in New Jersey as the setting. The father is my husband David, the child our daughter Heidi. It’s not an exact story of David taking Heidi out owling, but an amalgam of many such trips he did with all of our children. I purposefully didn’t mention the child’s gender, though the flap copy gives the secret away.”  Useful Tip: She mentions that “John Schoenherr’s Caldecott Acceptance speech can be found in the August 1988 issue of The Horn Book.”  Look it up if you’re able.

Finally, Publishers Weekly said of the book, “In harmony with the art, the melodious text brings to life an unusual countryside adventure.”

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth 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.


  1. Someday let’s put together a list of children’s books only adults like — GOOD children’s books only adults like (we both know some of the other kind.) My children were never persuaded of the virtues of Oxcart Man (possibly because the Reading Rainbow/Lorne Greene voice in my head did not come out my mouth.) Our neighbor loved Owl Moon, but her daughters would approach three-part harmony as they choroused “BOOOOOOOORRRRING!”

  2. A little bit of snark in the morning certainly clears the head!

    Jane Yolen

  3. Trini Marcouiller says

    I have read this book to more children than I could ever begin to count , over and over and over again and I have yet to find one that hasn’t been as memorized I with the story. Lovely story that captures the attention of both the young and young at heart.