Author Susan Cooper knows what it is to be scared of the dark. As a child growing up in England during World War II, she remembers long, dark nights, with Nazi bombers flying overhead.
"We would be sitting in a raid shelter underneath the back lawn with Mum reading books to us by the light of a candle," she recalls. "When the bombs came closer, the candle would shake."
Now, nearly a lifetime later, Cooper's book The Shortest Day, is a celebration of light gradually returning after the winter solstice. Saturday, Dec. 21, is the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere.
"I've spent my life writing about the light and the dark," Cooper says. And this latest book is "a family celebration of the light coming back after the dark threatens to take over the world."
The text of the book is a poem Cooper wrote in the 1970s for The Christmas Revels, an annual celebration of the solstice. It has been read at solstice events for more than 40 years.
Carson Ellis illustrated the poem. She begins the book with wordless spreads. These are "atmospheric landscapes," she explains, "meant to feel a little bit bleaker on each page."
Ellis didn't get it quite right on the first try.
"I started to mock this book up in this way that had ... merry villagers reveling on their way to a solstice celebration," Ellis says. The illustrations were cheerful and lighthearted.
But, corresponding by mail, she and Cooper found a different approach.
Cooper describes their collaboration as "one long letter."
Cooper explained that although the poem is about the return of light, the book needed to convey the depth of darkness, especially in olden times. "It's a book about deeper and more serious stuff ..." Ellis says. "This sense that, long ago, those shortening days, along with them came a lot of dread associated with the cold, and starvation, and disease."
Their correspondence completely changed Ellis' approach to the poem, which, she admits, was daunting. "I read the letter and thought, 'Oh, gosh, this is a much harder book,' " she recalls.
So Ellis switched gears and made illustrations that told the story of traditions that developed around the solstice – she says the winter holidays are an extension of the joy and relief of light gradually returning after a long winter. More than half the book depicts darkness and then ...
"When the sun rose on the morning after the shortest day, I wanted it to feel really joyous," Ellis says. "I wanted a sublime sunrise and a blue sky and it to feel like a new day and a new dawning."
Cooper says she hopes the book helps communicate a universal and timeless message of hope and peace.
Working on the book helped Ellis see beyond specific religious traditions associated with winter holidays. "It's more universal ... " she says. "It really is just kind of light triumphing over darkness. And once that year switches and those days begin to lengthen, it's a new year — and light is always a cause to celebrate."
Barrie Hardymon edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.
SUSAN COOPER: (Reading) So the shortest day came, and the year died, and everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world came people singing, dancing to drive the dark away.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Today, December 21 is the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere.
COOPER: (Reading) They lighted candles in the winter trees. They hung their homes with evergreen. They burned beseeching fires all night long to keep the year alive.
SIMON: For more than 40 years, people have been reading and performing Susan Cooper's poem "The Shortest Day" to celebrate the winter solstice.
COOPER: (Reading) And when the New Year's sunshine blazed awake they shouted, reveling. Down all the frosty ages you can hear them echoing behind us. Listen.
SIMON: Now that poem is a children's book.
COOPER: It's a family celebration of the light coming back after the dark threatens to take over the world.
SIMON: We've been asking authors and illustrators how they work together or work separately to translate words into pictures. For "The Shortest Day," Susan Cooper collaborated with Carson Ellis, the illustrator, by mail.
COOPER: I said in a letter to Carson that there is no story in this poem. We have to put the story in the pictures. So it's up to you, kid. And she certainly did.
CARSON ELLIS: (Laughter) It was one long, beautiful, very forthright kind of daunting letter that Susan wrote to me kind of telling me what she wanted the book to be able to do, and it completely changed the direction I was going in. And it was really daunting. I read the letter and thought, oh, gosh, this is a much harder book.
COOPER: Oh, dear.
ELLIS: My initial response was that I wanted it to look sort of like a Bruegel painting. If you know who Bruegel is, he's, like, a 16th-century painter. He painted this really famous painting called Hunters in the Snow, I think. A lot of people would recognize it. And he painted a lot of medieval scenes and a lot of great winter scenes. So I had this idea that I could kind of set the poem against the backdrop of medieval life and sort of chock it full of medieval details, so there would be a lot to glean about a life in medieval northern Europe from the book. That was kind of my initial response to it. But I started to mock this book up in this way that had these kind of merry villagers reveling on their way to a solstice celebration.
And I sent it to Susan to ask her some questions. I had questions about the chronology of the poem, and I had questions about the history of the solstice. So we had this exchange. And when she saw these kind of cheerful, light-hearted illustrations, she kind of corrected me and said that's not really what this book is about. It's a book about deeper and more serious stuff, to paraphrase her. It just - basically, the sense that long ago, those shortening days - along with them came a lot of dread associated with the cold and starvation and - actually, I feel like Susan should be talking about what this book is about. So I'm going to stop here.
COOPER: The pictures show you not just the shortest day. They show you the way the light gradually gets less and less as the year diminishes towards the end. Carson does this beautifully by having three or four pictures before the poem even starts showing you the sun weakening as the year goes on and the dread that this used to bring in the minds of primitive peoples until the sun comes up again after the shortest day, which is the beginning of hope. And the pictures manage to take you through time so that you are seeing those peasants from the Bruegel painting, but you are also seeing the same feelings echoed right up to the present day.
ELLIS: And I would add also that that idea of starting with those wordless spreads was actually Susan's idea when we were initially talking about how to do the book. I think she said something like, you know, it's a pretty short poem, and we have 32 pages. Do we have to initially jump right in to the text? And it was such an obvious and brilliant way to start the book. I was sort of embarrassed that I hadn't thought of it myself as the illustrator.
COOPER: It's a great idea. I didn't think of it myself, either. I stole it from my daughter.
COOPER: So we're both indebted.
ELLIS: Another thing I love about this book is that as a kid, I grew up in a really secular Jewish household. We celebrated Christmas and Hanukkah, but the general joy of the holidays associated with the birth of Christ was sort of lost on me. So this book helps me understand a little bit the joy of those winter holidays. It's more universal, and it really is just kind of light triumphing over darkness. And light is always a cause to celebrate.
COOPER: And I have an echo from my childhood, I think, because I was a kid during World War II in England. And the long dark nights were the nights that brought the Nazi bombers over, when we would be sitting in our air raid shelter underneath the back lawn with mum reading books to us by the light of a candle. And when the bombs came closer, the candle would shake. And it's the obviously subconscious echo of that, I think, has gone all through my writing life. And in this poem, particularly in this book, the line at the end of the book, people carol, feast, give thanks and dearly love their friends and hope for peace. Don't we all?
SIMON: Susan Cooper and Carson Ellis. A Newbury and Caldecott-award-winning author and illustrator talking about their book "The Shortest Day."
(SOUNDBITE OF LIGHTS AND MOTION'S "FIREFLIES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.