Phyllis: Winter in the north is made of longer and longer nights. What better time to think about lullabies, those songs we sing to our babies to help them sleep? Research has shown how similar lullabies are all around the world in the sounds and rhythms they use to soothe babies. So we thought we’d take a trip with some of those lullaby books, and a few more besides.
Lullaby for a (Black) Mother by Langston Hughes is a poem from his 1932 collection The Dream Keeper and Other Poems. Published as a picture book in 2014 and illustrated by Sean Qualls, the book is a celebration of love between a black mother and her baby. A note about the poet tells us that Hughes was inspired by music, and the words of this lullaby sing themselves off the pages.
My little dark baby,
My little earth-thing,
My little love-one,
What shall I sing
For your lullaby?
A necklace of stars
Winding the night.
Like the words, the illustrations flow across the page, showing the love between mother and child that carries them beyond the city into the sky of moon and stars and clouds and sun, then home again to a now-sleeping child held close in a mother’s arms. Beautifully evocative and satisfying.
Jackie: I love the imagery. I had to listen to this lullaby as a song, instead of reading the book. And, though I’m sure the illustrations are wonderful, I did not miss them because the imagery—“necklace of stars” and “bright diamond moon”—are so evocative. And the love in this lullaby is present in every syllable, or note.
Phyllis: Minfong Ho’s wonderful rhythm repetition in Hush! (pictures by Holly Meade) implores the world to keep quiet around a baby sleeping curled in a hammock. The story begins,
Who’s that weeping
In the wind?
A small mosquito.
don’t come weeping.
Can’t you see that
don’t you cry,
My baby’s sleeping
From weeping mosquito to peeping long-tailed lizard to creeping cat to squeaking fat gray mouse to leaping green frog to sniffling pig to beeping duck to swinging monkey to sweeping water buffalo to shrieking elephant, the mother quiets the whole world around her baby, complete with the sounds each animal makes, until everyone is asleep, even the mother. The last page turn reveals—a smiling baby wide awake. I love the pattern, the rhythm, the sounds of this story and could read it aloud again and again.
Jackie: I agree. The rhythm of the language is so satisfying. I wish I had a child to share this book with! I also loved the pattern of the page turns. A question is asked, and we have to turn the page to get the answer. Each page turn is a gift to be opened.
Phyllis, you and I often talk about verbs. This book subtly introduces a new verb with each new animal. The frog “leaps.” The musk ok “sweeps” the hay. The monkey “swings.” And each animal gets its own wonderful sound—“Hoom Praaa,” for the elephant, “Jiah, jiah,” for the monkey. That makes me want to turn the pages too. Such a satisfying book.
Phyllis: Not all bedtime books are soft and soothing. What about when rough and tough machines are done for the day? Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site by Sherry Duskey Rinker and Tom Lichtenheld shows us how big machines wrap up their day. Crane Truck swings one last beam into the sky, folds up his boom, and tucks in nice and tight. Cement Truck pours one last load before a bath and bedtime. Dump Truck spills a final load and falls asleep in one of my favorite illustrations that incorporates the Zzzz’s of his snoring into the skeletal beams of a building. Bulldozer and Excavator, too, finish their work and fall asleep. If I have one quibble with this book, it’s that all the machines are male. Where are the girl dump trucks or cement mixers tired after a hard day’s work, settling down to sleep? The book itself works beautifully as a rhyming nighttime story, but if I were to read it out loud, I might do my own editorial mixing of pronouns and give some of the machines a gender change.
Jackie: I agree, I’d love to see a girl dump truck, or excavator. I do love the features on the trucks, the arrangement of headlights and grills that suggest a face. And the crane sleeping with a teddy bear is so amusing, as is the blanket on top of the cement truck.
I guess, when reading with kids we could imagine other construction machines that might be the girls, we can amend the text in our own discussions. But I wonder—if this book were being written right now, would it be written to include girls?
Phyllis: Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown with pictures by Clement Hurd is the classic bedtime book of all bedtime books. When my first child was little I tried to establish a bedtime ritual by reading Goodnight Moon right before tucking her in. She caught on quickly that the book meant bedtime and rebelled. “No moon,” she insisted, “no moon.” Despite my misguided intentions, she came to love the book and searched each spread for the little mouse as the pictured bedroom darkens and the child bunny says goodnight to everything in the room and beyond, including a bowl of mush, an old lady whispering hush, nobody, stars, air, and noises everywhere. A 2014 editorial in the New York Times by Aimee Bender looks at the brilliance Brown brought to this seemingly simple ritual of saying goodnight.
Jackie: Even people who don’t read many children’s books know this book. It’s a cultural icon. And who doesn’t love the old lady and the hush, and the bowl full of mush?
Phyllis: Little You, by Richard van Camp, illustrated by Julie Flett, while not specifically a bedtime book, is a lovely celebration of a baby in few words and brilliant illustrations. The book begins,
Each two lines occupies the left-hand, white page of a double-page spread in this board book with a picture in rich colors on the left-hand of the spread, and each picture includes at least one thing red—the sun, a shirt, a dress, stockings, a flower, fins on fish, a bird’s breast, the design on a blanket wrapped around the baby and parents. Julie Flett is a Cree-Métis Canadian author; her books speak to all children but especially indigenous children, their lives and their language. I have loved Flett’s work ever since I discovered it, whether with her own writing or with others’ words. Every time I find one of her books, I buy it, savor it for a bit, then pass it on to a child.
Jackie: This is a gorgeous book in both language and visual art. I also admire Julie Flett’s work. And these few-word rhymes are perfect! “You are mighty. /You are small.” This is such a great pairing and anyone who has ever been in a room with a baby knows that this is true. Babies are small but mighty in their impact, mighty in the emotions they call forth. Or this: “You are life / and breath adored. / You are us / and so much more.” I would love to read this to a child. What a wonderful message to fall asleep with.
I can also imagine using it in a writing class with older students to talk about poetry. In fact, all these books make me want to do a writing exercise and try to write a lullaby. Lullabies involve rhythm and sound, imagery, emotion.
Phyllis: In the BBC article about lullabies a professor of child psychology describes how babies often respond to lullabies with coos and gestures in the same beat as the singing. “Baby and mother ‘get in the groove,’” he says, “like jazz musicians improvising.” And what better time to make sweet music with your baby or little one than these snowy, starry nights?