Sunday, August 02, 2009

Nightbird Stalking: Henry's Night by D. B. Johnson and Linda Michelin

I go down the stairs and out to the beech tree. Its branches bend and pull me in.

I sit up to my chin in night and listen for the bird.
--Henry David Thoreau

Henry the bear, D. B. Johnson's stand-in for Henry David Thoreau, is back in his fifth book based on the Walden experience, this time a nocturnal quest for the night bird, the illusive whippoorwill.

Unable to sleep, Henry climbs into his beech tree and is soon led by the distant "whippoorwill, whippoorwill, whippoorwill," of the nighthawk into the woods, on a journey lit only by a jar filled with the meadow's fireflies. As Henry observes the creatures of the night--owls, a pumperbird, frogs--the night bird seems to lead him in circles. Freeing his fireflies at last, Henry presses on, tripping on roots and dropping the jar, only to discover it refilled with tadpoles and swamp water.
"Have you seen the whippoorwill?" I ask.

"No one sees that bird," a frog tells me.

But Henry goes on through the dark until he reaches a mysterious lake shrouded by fog. Fashioning a raft, he sets off across the lake, and it is then that the much sought nightbird comes, sits on his head, and again sings his song, "Whippoorwill."

"The raft, the fog, the bird's song and I--all are as light as morning air."

As the bird leaves him to fly away into the night, Henry suddenly finds himself again in his tree, as he half tumbles, half climbs down and makes his way up the stairs and into his own bed, where he sleeps again to the song of the bird in the night.

Johnson's and Michelin's Henry's Night (Houghton-Mifflin, 2009) follows Henry Builds a Cabin, Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, Henry Works, and Henry Climbs a Mountain in their notable "Walden" series, in which Thoreau's ursine surrogate recreates his recorded adventures at Walden Pond. Befitting its nighttime setting, Johnson's illustrations use a dark, even murky, palette to achieve an almost dreamlike state for this Henry escapade. Fans of the jaunty daytime Henry should enjoy atmospherics and the flora and fauna noted in this nocturnal ramble.

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