The Sealey Challenge: The Shortest Day

A white hand holds THE SHORTEST DAY in front of light and tall sunflowers.
Susan Cooper & Carson Ellis’ The Shortest Day

Today was a difficult day set in a difficult week, and I turned to picture book poetry for solace: Susan Cooper’s The Shortest Day, lovingly illustrated by Carson Ellis.

Cooper has written of rising darkness forced down with light for years: I first met her, and fell in love with her work, with her Dark Is Rising sequence, and I see the same play of light and dark wrought here. It may be more gentle and more celebratory than the danger of Dark Is Rising, to be sure, but the same danger laces the edges of Cooper’s text and the margins of Ellis’s illustrations as lurks in Dark Is Rising.

For thousands of years my ancestors, and quite likely yours, too, in some way or another, marked the turning of the seasons, and the shortest day of the year, as darkness reigned briefly supreme over Earth. They did their part, my people did, to drive away the darkness, and Cooper’s text calls back to them, “down the centuries of the snow-white world,” as they “burned beseeching fires all night long / To keep the year alive.” Ellis’s illustrations, meanwhile, bring danger to lurk on the edges and in the corners, even as the beseeching fires echo the fiery sun.

The Shortest Day is beautiful and tender, a homage to those “down the centuries” who did their part to bring back the sun, a celebration of the warmth and beauty to be found in our coldest months. (If you’re familiar with Ellis’s award-winning Du Iz Tak?, you’ll be able to imagine her illustrations here: they are very different, but just as detailed and every bit as rich.) It’s eminently shareable, with young folks and older folks alike; each will draw something different from its text and illustrations.

For me, as a creature most at home in the cold and dark of winter, it reminds me not only of the eternal push and pull of the light and the dark but of the season that is my own, and I love it the more for its celebration of winter.