Sunday, January 30, 2011

Owl Moon

By Jane Yolen
Illustrated by John Schoenherr

Peaceful. Quiet. Still. A young girl peers from an open door at the vast land freshly covered with a blanket of snow. She awaits her father and a very special evening that lies ahead. The young girl and her father embark on their journey into the woods as they create the only two sets of footprints. They listen to the sound of a train whistling far away in the distance. Dogs howl in response, letting the reader know that the young girl and father are not yet alone.

Throughout the story, I almost feel as though I am intruding on this private moment between father and daughter—an outsider lurking in the shadows of the woods. I am wondering where the young girl and her father are headed and what they are going to do when they get there. I observe from a distance and I can imagine that the other nocturnal creatures, peeking from their hidden nooks and crannies, are wondering the same thing.

The only words spoken by the father occur near the end of the story when he says, “Time to go home.” Yet in spite of the lack of conversation between the father and daughter, I am still witness to the close relationship between them. Yolen writes from the perspective of the young girl—allowing the reader to experience her innermost thoughts and emotions. I can understand the young girl’s excitement for this special evening through phrases such as “I had been waiting to go owling with Pa for a long, long time.” And, “Pa made a long shadow, but mine was short and round. I had to run after him every now and then to keep up, and my short, round shadow bumped after me.”

While reading, I couldn’t help but think about the conversations that must have occurred at the dinner table in the years and moments leading up to this night. I hear the young girl’s brothers excitedly talking over breakfast about the look in the owl’s eyes that they had seen the evening before. I picture the young girl asking her father when it will be her turn. I imagine that for years, the young girl’s father said things to all of his children like, “If you go owling, you have to be quiet,” or, “When you go owling, you have to be brave.” Through Yolen’s use of repetition of this phrase as part of the girl’s thoughts, I can sense that she is doing all she can to follow these unspoken guidelines.

Through Schoenherr’s full-bled watercolor illustrations, I can feel the changes in emotion and tension building as the young girl and her father approach the woods. At the start of the story, the forest seemed far away. The mention of the moonlight gave me the sense that it was still light enough for the young girl to see everything in her surroundings. I felt the tension that the author was trying to convey through words as the illustration of the woods became darker. The trees, their branches, and their shadows were drawn with diagonal lines which helped me to feel the uneasiness that the girl must have also been feeling. I could empathize with the young girl—who was scared and knew she couldn’t verbally express her fears, but felt comfort holding her father’s hand or standing close.

For a moment, Schoenherr changed the perspective of his illustrations so that I too could stare at the Great Horned Owl, “for one minute, three minutes, maybe even a hundred minutes…” He used vivid details and accurately depicted the textures of the owl’s feathers, fur, and talons. I felt the intensity of this beautiful creature’s yellow eyes staring at me, and I too understood the hope that Yolen describes is all that is needed.