In Once Upon a Northern Night the French/ Canadian illustrator Isabelle Arsenault collaborates with writer Jean Pendziwol, who draws on her native Lake Superior and northern Ontario. Arsenault’s style is painterly but with a strong graphic design element that helps create artwork that take your far beyond the world in which they are set.
It’s a story to be read aloud at bedtime on a frosty night. The text is deliberately old fashioned, the refrain of Once Upon a Northern Night providing a pleasing sing song feel.
Although the sentiment is sometimes laid on a little thick, when it works, it really works; combining elegantly with Arsenault’s palette, of pastel shades of gouache, pencil, watercolour and ink.
‘Once upon a northern night melodies of green and pink and orange sang across the sky. I tried to capture them but they were much too nimble, and only their rhythm reached you, deep in slumber, rising and falling with each sweet peaceful breath.’
Arsenault revels in the natural setting (which provided the most impressive parts of Jane, the Fox and Me), transforming it with shades of Roger Duvoisin, Barnett Freedman and the early work of Maurice Sendak. Though crucially it doesn’t feel like its set in the past.
I’ll leave you with the book’s defining image, a picture of a weeping willow heavily laden with snow and starlight.
‘Once upon a northern night,
in the darkest hours,
the snowy clouds crept away
and the stars appeared –
twinkling points of light
hanging in the purple sky.
‘I knew by the time you woke,
the sun would have chased them away,
so I set them like diamonds
on the branches of the willow’