by Michèle Lemieux
Published by Kids Can Press
240 pages, 1999
Buy it online
A Storm of Questions
Reviewed by Linda L. Richards
Into a world of garishly colored and pointedly amusing picture books -- most containing the requisite 32 pages -- comes Stormy Night, a children's book so absolutely different it sparkles with reinvention. And the full 240 pages it demands is only the beginning.
Stormy Night begins with a child getting ready for sleep. She brushes her teeth, kisses her parents, then hops into bed. Finally, five captivating pen and ink drawings and ten pages into the book, there is speech.
I can't sleep!
Too many questions are buzzing through my head.
And the questions are important ones.
Where does infinity end?
If someone made a hole in the sky,
would we see infinity?
And if we made a hole in that hole,
what would we see?
And so on, one by one tackling the great -- and not-so-great -- questions of the universe. And never answering. Not even an attempt. But each question has an accompanying illustration. Sometimes more, if the question evolves over a series of pages. The drawings don't hold answers, either. Rather, they are the type of illustrations that might indeed have fallen from a child's head directly onto a page. Some of them are silly, some are quite serious. Some are rendered in a few elegant lines: just the scratchings of black ink on the page that still manage to convey emotion and depth. Other illustrations are more sophisticated, yet don't betray the simple feeling of curiosity and wonder that is beautifully accomplished throughout the book.
Author/illustrator Michèle Lemieux has said that Stormy Night was really a 40th birthday present that she made for herself. She says that, at a certain point in her life, she found herself full of doubt, "questioning myself and my abilities." As a visual artist, Lemieux expressed some of these doubts in her work: creating drawings that came from her heart and intended -- at least initially -- only for herself. "Most of the drawings are directly from my sketchbooks. I redid very few because I wanted the doubt to show in my hand."
In reality, very little of that doubt does show, if only because Lemieux's hand is steady, sure and practiced. The internationally recognized illustrator and author of children's books has a long list of publication credits behind her. Most notable among them are Peter and the Wolf from 1991, which was shortlisted for a Governor General's Literary Award; 1989's What's That Noise; and There Was an Old Man... A Collection of Limericks written by Edward Lear and illustrated by Lemieux in 1994. This last was shortlisted for both the Governor General's Award and the Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon Illustrator's Award.
Initially published in Germany in 1996, Stormy Night has won international acclaim and is now available in nine languages. The book has won many awards, most notable among them the BolognaRagazzi Award.
The storm around Stormy Night is interesting yet not hard to understand. Lemieux's eloquent and effortless-seeming illustrations, as well as the questions she asks in her prose, offer a very natural jumping off point for discussions between parents and young children.
In the book, the child says:
I'm afraid of what lies ahead of me in life!
Will the world come to an end someday?
Will I know when it's time to die?
Will it hurt?
Can we each see our own soul?
Where does it go when we die?
Maybe it will join infinity?
Explanations for questions like these would not be appropriate. And Lemieux does not offer them. The "right" answers are unique to each family and are most properly answered in that way, if you care to answer them at all. For some readers it will be enough to be entranced by Lemieux's artistic vision and carried away by the possibilities offered by questions that -- perhaps -- have no answer at all. | November 1999
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of Death Was in the Picture.