Listening, Hearing, Speaking

Midnight & Moon – written by Kelly Cooper, illustrated by Daniel Miyares
Tundra Books, 2022

Hearing is not the same as listening, and vocal language is not the only way of speaking.  In Midnight & Moon, a girl who cannot communicate in the same way as those around her is very much able to understand others and, at least sometimes, to make her thoughts known. This sensitive picture book is not only an exploration of disability, nor only an expression of respect for animals, although it includes those themes. Instead, it imagines the links among people and between humans and animals as a continuum of words, sounds, gestures, and intuition about one another.

Clara is unable to speak, although the exact nature of her disability is not specified. This choice makes her character more universal, less likely to be interpreted primarily as advocacy for a particular challenge.  Both the text and the pictures are realistic, but also laden with symbolism.  There is no contradiction in seeing Clara as a real child, but also an example of the strengths which difference may confer.  Clara “hears sounds that other children ignore,” so her intense attentiveness makes it no surprise that she emphasizes with Moon, the blind foal raised, along with other horses, on her farm.

The bond between Clara and her mother is distilled in one concise picture, where her mother asks her to name the new foals. . Clara looks up at her mother, whose face is full of love as she allows her daughter to choose words.  Clara “moves her pencil up and down and all around.” For someone confronting difficulty with language, each word is freighted with tremendous significance. Midnight is Moon’s sighted companion, helping to guide him when the other horses fail to understand his puzzling movements. 

Similarly, Jack is a child at Clara’s school who relates to her without condescension.  Kelly Cooper is not equating animals with humans by noting that both species include individuals who are able to transcend norms. The ironies of “show and tell” in Clara’s school carry the same message. Other students wave their hands in excitement to volunteer. The assortment of objects that have meaning to them are shown in a circle; it will be easy for everyone but Clara to talk about their kazoos, coins, jacks and stuffed animals.  Clara silence is a marked contrast.

Daniel Miyares’ images sometimes evoke classical children’s books; the scene where Clara reaches up to feed Moon echoes Hans Christian Andersen and Frances Hodgson Burnett in its romantic view of childhood. At the same time, the pathos of those authors is replaced by admiration for Clara’s strength and her mother’s compassion. 

The visual poetry of white, gray, and black horses caught in a snowstorm is stunning. The ensuing pages trace how chaos resolves in calm through an almost mystical process which Cooper leaves somewhat ambiguous.  Midnight and Moon depicts a truth which children know, that friendship cannot always be reduced to words.

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