CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 17 . . . . January 5, 2018
The Night Lion was first published in Germany. Sanne Dufft, someone who has drawn for as long as she can remember, worked as an art therapist for children before deciding to realize her childhood dream to become a full time illustrator. Dufft was a runner up for the SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) Tomie De Paola Award in 2014, a list handpicked by the legendary Tomie himself, and she illustrated several picture books before trying her hand at both writing and illustrating The Night Lion. Her background as an art therapist informs a work for young children that is developmentally spot on in addressing nightmares.
The German edition of The Night Lion is called Magnus und der Nachtlöwe – Magnus and the Night Lion. The gentle humour of having a child named Magnus who feels "wild and fierce and frightening", but who also feels very small due to his nightmares, is lost in the English version in which the protagonist is named Morgan. Slightly reminiscent of the incorrigible Max from Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, Morgan has a hat which "makes him tall," and a wooden sword that "makes him strong." He's so "wild and fierce and frightening" as a knight that he scares his younger sibling, Lisa, who refuses to play with him and latches herself onto her mother's legs.
Morgan's mother is too busy mixing dough in the kitchen to mind him, but his nana is not. She takes the young knight out into the nearby woods, since all knights "[need] fresh air." Nana carries Morgan's sword and hat, which Morgan thinks "look good on her", while he zips ahead of her on his scooter. That night, however, Morgan dreams that a robber in the woods wants his sword and hat. Here, Dufft introduces a double-page spread which shows the dark boles of trees, drifting leaves, and distant stars twinkling behind the branches. In the upper left corner of the spread, a tall dark shape wearing a long coat and hat lurks. The following wordless double- spread shows Morgan in his hat and sword crouched between two tree trunks, one hand clutching his sword, the other his feathered hat, while the dark shape of the robber, with just his eyes illuminated, looms closer.
Morgan jolts awake and feels only a little better when his mother tries to comfort him and show him that there is no robber in the house. "There is a robber," Morgan insists. "There really is. He's big and strong, and he wants my sword and hat!" Morgan's arms are stretched out to explain all this to his mother. Instead of Morgan's silhouette on the wall behind him, Dufft places the robber's silhouette, a powerful juxtaposition demonstrating how real a child's nightmares can feel to her/him.
The next day, Nana gives Morgan a stuffed toy lion, even though, as Morgan points out, it's not his birthday. Nana responds that "[Everybody] needs a lion sometimes. Especially at night." Morgan wonders if Nana knows about his dream, and with Nana's sound advice, he spends the day constructing a blanket fort as a cave for the lion to sleep in, guarding the lion as a brave knight should, and feeding him a lot of food (in the form of construction blocks and other toys at his disposal). At night, Morgan drifts into slumber with the lion snuggled in his arms. The next spread is truly magical, if not entirely unexpected, as Morgan's face now nestles against the face of a life size lion, his hand near the lion's large paw. The two immediately re enter Morgan's nightmare, the lion at his side. The excerpt quoted above is from this point in the story to its end and shows that, with the help of Nana and the night lion, Morgan is able to conquer his fear and be as bold and strong at night as he is in the daytime. The story ends with another double-spread, this time with Morgan astride the Night Lion, silhouetted by the light of the moon, sword hoisted in the air and hat in place, braver than ever before.
The soothing repetition of the text's beginning and end and the charming warmth of Dufft's watercolour and pencil illustrations should make this a storytime staple within the home. In fact, I can't emphasize how lovely Dufft's artwork is bringing to mind the styles of Tomie dePaola, Maurice Sendak, Janet Ahlberg, and Shirley Hughes, but with a sensibility and sweetness that's all her own. The book as a physical object is also comforting, with padded covers, and endpapers featuring a star studded sky, all thoughtful elements that create a perfect lap book for bedtime. I have only two minor quibbles to note. As a translated text, there are some word choices which misfire and deviate from the active voice and present tense of most of the story. Secondly, traditional gender roles may be enforced in the book, with the mother's domain in the kitchen, Morgan the boisterous boy and Amy his timorous (albeit slightly younger) female sibling. Morgan's father appears only once, with his back to the reader, as he checks on Morgan after his triumph over the robber in his nightmare. Nana, however, is wonderful as she mediates Morgan's imaginative play in the daytime and prevents it from going awry at night when he dreams. Nana demonstrates Dufft's understanding of how young children process their emotions and how adult caregivers in their lives can best support them. Nana also gives agency for Morgan to figure out how to conquer his fears himself, so that he feels "braver than anyone. Especially at night."
Hopefully, The Night Lion will be the first of many picture books to come from Dufft. Pair The Night Lion with another bedtime read aloud, Jane Whittingham's Wild One
Ellen Wu is a teen services librarian who works in Surrey Libraries, BC.