Worldwide, the hope and joy of light illuminate the winter holidays, from the twinkling Christmas lights tracing snowy rooftops to the glowing oil lamps of Diwali and the flickering candles of Hanukkah menorahs. To fully capture the power of light, illustrators must balance it with shadows and deep darks. A gorgeous example of this interplay is Oskar and the Eight Blessings, by Richard Simon and Tanya Simon, illustrated by Sibert Honor recipient Mark Siegel.
The story, which won the 2015 National Jewish Book Award for Children’s Literature, opens in the early days of World War II with a glossy black spread dramatizing the horrors of Kristallnacht and a Jewish mother and father’s decision to send young Oskar alone to America with nothing but an address and photo of an unfamiliar relative. Oskar’s ship reaches New York City on Christmas Eve, 1938, which was also the seventh night of Hanukkah. In classic graphic novel tradition, Siegel leaves plenty of space between the panels for us to imagine what Oskar feels and sees as he navigates a frigid unknown city cloaked in shades of sepia and gray.
Oskar’s journey up Broadway reveals a world of wonders, from a newsstand display of Superman, with rare pops of warm red, to historically possible encounters with Count Basie and Eleanor Roosevelt. Then there’s the Macy’s Christmas window – Siegel’s left page gazes inward at a scene evocative of a Marc Chagall mythical shtetl village and then he flips the point of view outward on the righthand page to focus on Oskar’s eyes behind a wispy, scrim-like reflection of an angel aloft. As night falls in Manhattan, dark foregrounds silhouette the backlit city. Indirect lighting underscores the tenderness and vulnerabilities of childhood. Oskar’s long trek comes to an end, at last, with the warm embrace of his Aunt Esther.
For a glimpse into Siegel’s illustrative process as he’s interviewed by New York Times children’s book editor Maria Russo, watch https://fb.watch/9S8n6-5X_M/.
Winter Candle by Ezra Jack Keats Award-winning author Jeron Ashford, illustrated by Stacey Schuett, shares a different type of journey, that of a stubby, lumpy candle that makes its modest way through an apartment building, bringing light and cheer despite its less than beautiful guise. After first being called into action to grace a Thanksgiving spread, the homely candle pinch-hits for a family’s Havdalah candle, which marks the end of Sabbath. It goes on to fill an important role in a Saint Lucia crown and later completes a Kwanzaa kinara. When a big snowstorm hits a few days later and the lights go out, a new family in the building worries their Papa won’t find them. Could a single candle lead him home?
Throughout the spreads, tiny lights illuminate the figures and objects. Flashlight beams bounce across a stairwell, moonlit snowflakes cast a gentle glow into a shadowy room, a single candle shines on a child’s face.
The majority of Schuett’s scenes take place in the evening or at night, and she concocts rich darks with mixtures of warm and cool colors. She pulls from a palette of jewel tones to create iridescent textured walls that glow with the shared light of community.
Lucia and the Light, by Phyllis Root, illustrated by Mary Grandpré, transports readers to a cottage in the icy Far North where the sun has disappeared, and dark has fallen on the land. Outside, the only illumination is pale starlight, and Lucia soon realizes she must find the sun before harm comes to her mother and baby brother. The images sensitively portray the importance of light and warmth to humans and the creatures they care for. Grandpré’s inky blue and violet pastels suffuse the chilly scenes. Even her whites feel cold in the gloomy woods. We shiver along with the exhausted Lucia as she sinks into the deep snow, nearly succumbing to its deadly grip. With the help of her brave and loyal cat, she’ll prevail on her quest, but not before facing a horde of trolls worthy of an ancient Nordic saga.
Even in the darkest times, life will go on, promises Newbery Medal-winning author Cynthia Rylant in her book The Stars Will Still Shine, illustrated by Tiphanie Beeke. Written after 9/11, the picture book’s comforting words and images center on the touchstones of a child’s life – kittens, flowers, ice cream and pie, birds flying overhead, families snuggling together – and how these things will not change despite the troubles in the outside world. Beeke gives a light, abstract touch to her spreads, filling them with bright colors and the types of details children notice in the moment. Her wet-into-wet-painted flower garden pulses with kids digging and carrying, planting and pulling. A later drowsy porch scene shines with a constellation of lightning bugs beneath a tree on a summer night. “There will be light in every dark place,” the story assures us. “The sky will still be there, the stars will still shine.” It’s a timeless message we can all appreciate.
Watercolor fine artist and children’s book illustrator E.B. Lewis demonstrates how he paints a glowing woodland scene with a careful orchestration of wet into wet painted colors and the saved whites of his watercolor paper.
You’ll enjoy these two walk-throughs, rendering candle flames against a dark background by watercolor master Yong Chen (the second link, of his painting of a lit candle on a birthday cupcake, is here), and the demonstration below by Maria Raczynska.