I’ll confess: the other two picturebooks of wonder that I wrote about earlier this month came my way via someone else’s recommendation. (Brain Pickings, thank you!) But this book, Winter is Coming by Tony Johnston and Jim LaMarche, I found on my own, and it might just be my favourite picturebook of all the ones I read for the first time in 2015. (Though it faces some pretty stiff competition.)
Isn’t it a beauty? And this is pretty much exactly what you get inside. This girl, whose writings in her journal make up the narration,* observes the wildlife near her house as the year creeps from late September to the first snowfall of winter in late November.**
Our narrator-protagonist is a keen observer and an artist. She is completely open to the marvels of what she sees – and she is watching, keenly watching with all of her body, all her senses. She writes poetry. She peers through her binoculars or hangs over the edge of her tree-loft platform to gaze at the animals below. She draws what she sees. Most of all she is aware, wonderfully aware and delighting in the awareness of what she experiences.
She is level-headed: this is observation without detachment; she has compassion, not sentiment, for the animals above and below. Words and pictures show her utter absorption in the beasts she loves and wonders at.
The illustrative perspective dances near to and away from its subjects, sometimes favouring the girl, sometimes the creatures she watches, and from all angles. We watch the animals intent about the business of finding food, and as she watches them faithfully each day we watch her. Her drawing is never mentioned in the words, while in the illustrations we see the artist at work without attention being drawn explicitly to her.
As poetry does, the words have rhythm and pattern, which continue steadily to the time when it is desirable to break them, and, as with the illustrations, this is subtle and just-so. The animals leave, some farther than others, and some return. The march of the season is evident in her words for what she sees, and in the illustrations as the colour palate changes subtly through autumn to the chill of winter, and as our girl, who begins clad in jeans, boots, and a red woolly sweater, begins to add layers of warm clothing as the weeks go by – a vest, a coat, mitts, a scarf, a hat.
Winter is Coming is one of the most stirring picturebooks and loveliest accounts of the relationship between child and the outdoors that I have come across.
* It is never explicitly stated in the text that the narrative is what the girl writes in her journal, but – as with so much else in this story – the pictures say what the words leave unspoken. The endpapers here provide the hint: the endpages at the beginning of the book show the girl’s drawing paper, binoculars, pencil crayons and sharpener – and, taking up most of the doublespread, an open journal, lined on one side of the page. A pencil balances on the unmarked pages. The endpages at the end of the book show the other side of the girl’s observations by focusing on the pages and pages of her drawings of the animals she observed.
** Isn’t the timing perfect? It hasn’t snowed yet here in BC’s Lower Mainland, and we have reached December, but it is less than a week until winter officially begins with the solstice, and the weather has certainly decided to remind us of the fact.