Saturday, December 22, 2012

Charley's First Night by Amy Hest, Illustrated by Helen Oxenbury

I haven't reviewed a picture book here for a while, but this one is so special I have to share it.  Charley's First Night is about a boy and his new puppy.  Look at the lovely eye contact between them on the cover.  And here's some of the writing:

"I carried him in my old baby blanket, which was soft and midnight blue, and we were new together and I was very, very careful not to slip in the snow and I thought about his name.  I was the one who thought up his name.  Charley.  Charley Korn.  My name is Henry.  Henry Korn."

Lovely, lovely, lovely.  This book is so pure and warm.  Henry is such a thoughtful and empathetic little lad, and we see him looking after Charley on his first night at the Korn household with the attentiveness of a new parent.  He's practically bursting with excitement, but it's expressed in a very nurturing way. There's a fresh, first-time innocence about how Henry cares for Charley that's very sweet.

Of course, Charley's first night is fraught--Henry's parents have a few rules, and one of them is that Charley sleeps in the kitchen, not in Henry's bed.  Henry carefully puts a pillow, a teddy bear and a ticking clock down in the kitchen to make Charley comfortable, and waits with Charley until he falls asleep.  But late at night--oh no!--Henry hears a noise.

"The crying started in the middle of the night and you knew right away it was Charley. 

'Don't cry, Charley!  Don't cry!' I ran to the kitchen and scooped him and held him close in my strong arms, and he shivered."

Henry gets Charley settled down again, only to be woken up for a second time.  I can relate--Charley's just like a new baby.  After a lot of soothing and walking around, Henry lays Charley on his bed just for a moment, thinking all the while about how his parents were pretty clear on where Charley should and should not sleep.  Of course, Henry and Charley both end up drifting off, and the last thing we see is Henry's mother's coming into his bedroom in the morning to find them fast asleep.

Helen Oxenbury is a revered name in picture books, a major talent who I'm sure will go down in illustrating history like Caldecott or Sendak or Quentin Blake.   Her specialty is drawing babies and young children, and here she just suffuses the pages with trust and quiet joy. Amy Hest's text is magical. This isn't a Christmas book per se, but it gave me the feeling of Christmas.  Love, and night-time, and excitement, and being together.

Playing with Charley in the snow.

Here's Helen Oxenbury in her studio:

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