The Shortest Day by Susan Cooper, illustrated by Carson Ellis

The Shortest Day by Susan Cooper
illustrated by Carson Ellis
Review Copy from Candlewick Press
Susan Cooper, author of the Dark is Rising Sequence for which she won a Newbery Medal, wrote The Shortest Day as a poem "for the theater, for a joyful celebration of the winter solstice, in music, dance and words, that's known as the Christmas Revels." Caldecott Honor winner Carson Ellis marvelously brings Cooper's words to life, connecting the long distant past to today. Four illustrations precede Cooper's words, and show a personified sun, a giant walking a bit bent over, walking stick in hand, across the land where early humans hunt and gather with the rhythm of the day and the seasons. Cooper begins her poem with, "So the shortest day came, and the year died." Yet, in the dark, there is "singing, dancing, / To drive the dark away." Candles are lit, in windows and in the "winter trees," and homes are hung with evergreen. Fires burn through the night, the revelers beseeching the year to stay alive and rejoicing when the sun "blazed awake" the next day. Connecting these ancient rituals with our lives today, Cooper writes, "Through all the frosty ages you can hear them / Echoing, behind us - listen!" Ellis illustrates this echo perfectly, with three revelers holding hands in a snowy field and greeting the sun on one page, three children holding hands and running up the driveway to a house, garlanded in evergreen and strings of lights, a winter sun low in the distance. The final joyful pages of the book show communities caroling, feasting, giving thanks, dearly loving friends and hoping for peace.
Cooper's author's note adds a depth and richness I greatly appreciate, as someone who replaced Christmas celebrations with Solstice celebrations in my nuclear family over fifteen years ago. Discussing the equinoxes and solstices, she touches on the deeply human experience of being governed by "the patterns of light and darkness, summer and winter, warmth and cold. And, of course, life and death." She reminds us that rebirth rituals have long been traditions we have celebrated, writing, 

It's a universal impulse, this celebration of the light as a symbol of continuing life. The Yule and the evergreens of my poem come from northern Europe, but the candles in those Christmas trees belong to the same family as the menorah candles of Chanukah or the oil lamps of Diwali. Christianity and many other faiths share their intention; they are lights of hope, reaching for the triumph of good over evil. The Shortest Day is for everyone.

Not practicing a religion and being exhausted and frustrated by the consumerist trappings of the holiday, choosing not to celebrate Christmas was an easy decision for my family. Yet, I still felt a deep desire to mark this time of year, to connect with loved ones, to open my home and share gratitude and food. Celebrating the Winter Solstice proved the perfect holiday and Cooper and Ellis have captured this and lifted it up beautifully and succinctly with this superb book.

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