The Shortest Day

by Susan Cooper (Author) Carson Ellis (Illustrator)

Reading Level: 2nd − 3rd Grade

As the sun set on the shortest day of the year, early people would gather to prepare for the long night ahead. They built fires and lit candles. They played music, bringing their own light to the darkness, while wondering if the sun would ever rise again.

Written for a theatrical production that has become a ritual in itself, Susan Cooper's poem "The Shortest Day" captures the magic behind the returning of the light, the yearning for traditions that connect us with generations that have gone before -- and the hope for peace that we carry into the future.

Richly illustrated by Carson Ellis with a universality that spans the centuries, this beautiful book evokes the joy and community found in the ongoing mystery of life when we celebrate light, thankfulness, and festivity at a time of rebirth. Welcome Yule!

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review

Newbery Medalist Cooper and Caldecott Honoree Ellis observe winter solstice, which Northern Europeans once celebrated, by "singing, dancing,/ To drive the dark away" as one year ended and another began. In Ellis's subtle, mythical paintings, the sun--a large gray figure with a radiant head--slips away over a landscape first bright and brown, then deep with snow. Lacy tree branches darken, and candles appear on windowsills: "So the shortest day came,/ and the year died." Out of doors, a father and child light candles on a tree, and their community joins hands in dance, burning "beseeching fires all night long/ To keep the year alive" until "the new year's sunshine blazed awake." As time speeds forward, three figures skip toward a modern house. Inside, children dance and sing--both Christmas tree and menorah are present--then tumble outside, a diverse, bundled-up crowd. "Welcome Yule!" they cry. Based on Cooper's poem by the same name, originally written for a theatrical performance, this cyclical volume offers an alluringly haunting alternative to more familiar seasonal fare--one that is sure to serve as "lights of hope" on a dark season's stage. Ages 4-8. (Oct.)

Copyright 2019 Publishers Weekly, LLC Used with permission.

School Library Journal

Starred Review

K-Gr 4—This lovely celebration of winter solstice blends imagery from the long-ago revelries of northern Europeans with modern-day observations and global traditions. Originally created for a 1974 theatrical production of the Christmas Revels, the poem is filled with ear-pleasing rhythms, lyrical language, and a dramatic momentum that pulls listeners in. The gouache illustrations open with atmospheric renderings of old Europe; the curved outlines and warm earth tones bring to mind ancient cave paintings. As pages turn, the sun, perched on the shoulders of a dusky gray figure with a walking stick, strides across the horizon crouching ever lower, until it sets behind the backdrop of wooden houses ("So the shortest day came,/and the year died"). The next scene shows a line of villagers venturing into the night, "singing, dancing,/To drive the dark away." They place lighted candles in trees, hang their homes in evergreen, and burn "beseeching fires all night long/To keep the year alive" until "the new year's sunshine blazed awake." Their delighted voices reverberate through the centuries, as modern-day celebrants "carol, feast, give thanks,/And dearly love their friends,/and hope for peace" in a cozy home festooned with both Christmas tree and menorah. A line of children head outdoors to "Welcome Yule!," their silhouettes and joyful expressions cleverly echoing the villagers from long ago (the sun figure reappears on the final page). VERDICT A treat to share aloud, this book makes a unique choice for seasonal sharing, opens discussion about rebirth rituals and holidays that incorporate light, and celebrates hope even in darkest times.-Joy Fleishhacker, Pikes Peak Library District, Colorado Springs

Copyright 2019 School Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.
Susan Cooper
Newbery Medalist Susan Cooper is the author of the classic fantasy series The Dark Is Rising, as well as many other works for children, including the picture books The Magician's Boy, Tam Lin, and Frog. Born in England to Welsh parents, she now lives in Marshfield, Massachusetts. She is a recipient of the Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement from the American Library Association.

Steven Kellogg is a revered author and illustrator who has written and/or illustrated almost 100 children's books, including the Pinkerton series and How Much Is a Million?. A recipient of an honorary doctor of letters from the University of Findlay, he lives in Essex, New York.

Lexile Measure
Guided Reading Level
Publication date
October 20, 2019
Age Range
4 - 7 years

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