Goodnight, Sleepyville – Blake Liliane Hellman and Steven Henry, Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2020
Helping children to comfortably go to bed and fall asleep has always been connected to reading. Before the lights dim and they drift off, that transitional reassuring story is essential. Blake Liliane Hellman and Steven Henry’s new accompaniment to a peaceful bedtime is stocked with beautiful pictures, calming words, and allusions to a child’s daily routine. If your kids, and you, are fans of that great green room with the red balloon, Goodnight, Sleepyville has some new rooms with new residents to start off dreamland.
Readers will meet animal characters with of different species living harmoniously in Sleepyville, some reading newspapers, others toting loaves of bread for dinner. There are libraries, opticians, and multi-residence complexes in trees. The recognizably human aspects of the town allow children to situate themselves in the story. There is a great deal of family activity, not frenetic, but lively.
Two fox siblings tussle over a book, and an assembly line of parent and kids wash and dry dishes together. Dinnertime includes reading and distracting conversation as well as attention to food. Henry includes many images of parental protectiveness, each one specific to its kind of animal.
A pelican drifts through the water with babies in her oversized beak, and a mole curls around his young in an underground burrow. Children will not be surprised to learn that fox cubs dream of candy. Hellman’s text is not an imitation of classic bedtime stories, but rather an homage to that genre. Rhyme alternates with rhythmic prose: “Breathing is fun./Now you’re almost done!/Let’s snuggle, wiggle, cuddle,” accompanies pictures of animals outdoors and in, sleeping under leaves or seated in front of the family’s fireplace.
Nighttime in Sleepyville highlights continuity; “…down goes the sun, and up comes the moon,” over a quiet island wrapped in darkness, with bright yellow windows matching the crescent moon. The reward for washing your paws and choosing the pattern on your favorite pajamas is a soothing night’s rest.
The book’s impact is a combination of features that set it apart. Henry’s pencil, watercolor, and gouache drawings are almost tactile. Children will encounter the characters and their home as characters in motion, almost animated in their lifelike world. The many details of their clothing and homes brings to mind such classics as the works of Beatrix Potter and Arnold Lobel, but the final impression of the book is quite up-to-date, a contemporary tale of children mildly reluctant to give up the day and enter the night. There is a fine literary line between repetition and boredom. Children will want to hear, and see, this book again and again, finding new elements in the pictures and hearing the musical words which bring on sleep. Caregivers and teachers will want to make room on their shelves for this beautifully painted poem to a universal experience of childhood.