Monday, June 13

Fight the Night

written and illustrated by  
Tomie de Paola  
Lippencott  1968  

Ronald so refuses to go to sleep that he vows to fight the night, until the morning if necessary.  

Playing outside until bedtime, Ronald refuses to cooperate. Even as his mother coaxes him into pajamas and into bed with the vague promises that tomorrow is another day and perhaps there might be a surprise for him and that the night would catch him and make him sleepy, Ronald is having none of it. Donning a cape, a pot repurposed into a helmet, and a flashlight Ronald climbs under his bedclothes and creeps in the darkness toward the foot of the bed where the Night lives. 

Squeezing out the other end he emerges in his outside fantasy world prepared to take on the Night. But the Night is having none of it, calling out "Go too sleep before it's too late." Demanding a fight Ronald promises to catch him with his flashlight but the Night decrees "You will never catch me" and so the chase is on. Eventually the Night insists Ronald must be getting sleepy, and despite his protests his eyes show fatigue. But come the dawn Ronald has succeeded, and with the Night in retreat he climbs back into his bed from the bottom, removes his helmet and cape, and from the bottom of the bed hears the night laughing at him just as mother calls out that breakfast is ready. With that Ronald draws the covers over him and sleeps all day, the Night having finally caught him as his mother had promised.  

In this very early Tomie De Paola book we are treated to a classic Hero on a Night Journey, literally this time battling the night. It also happens to be a classic Epic in the battle between kids and their parents come bed time, especially in summertime when the sun is lout long past dinner and neighborhood games of hide-and-seek are a rite of childhood if ever there was one. Here our Epic Warrior Ronald seriously dons his fighting gear and actively goes in search of the Night, vowing to vanquish it once and for all. The Night, elemental and omnipresent, becomes his transformative night passage to self-mastery, proving once and for all that the night can be fought. The Warrior, having vanquished his foe, returns home the way he came having proved himself and grown up to the point he no longer need heed his parents. He has earned the sleep of the Hero returned triumphant.  

De Paola's lines are young and not quite as assured as they later became. Placed alongside the 60s work of Mercer Mayer and Maurice Sendak the three writer-illustrators could easily be assumed at having come from the same school; De Paola's thatched crosshatching aligns with earlier Sendak, while the poses, facial features, and attitudes of the main characters seem to come from Mayer's family tree. Which is not to suggest there was any conscious effort to copy one another or create a unified style. I don't mean to suggest there was a deliberate attempt to copy or mimic each other, only that they are very much of the time and before de Paola's lines softened and his color palate neutralized to its recognizable state that it is today.  

I was curious to check out some early de Paola after hearing him speak at a recent SCBWI conference. There was a sense, looking back, that he felt he didn't know what he was doing when he started in children's books, a trope of modesty I have heard from others, most notably and hysterically from Peter Sis. These illustrators who come to children's books seemingly by accident are coy in the way they hide their light under a bushel. While it may be true enough that these illustrators were not schooled in the sequential storytelling art of picture books the way contemporary illustrators can now establish themselves with completed books as portfolio pieces, it cannot be ignored that the sense of story and the essence of what is true about childhood had been completely absorbed. A solid understanding of the classic tales, of heroes and their journeys, and of children at play, these things de Paola understood and captured here.  

Fight the Night can be viewed as a less sophisticated Where the Wild Things are, but what a pity it isn't still around to give younger readers a chance to imagine a journey into the night with a Hero with an articulated goal and success in his charge against the oppressive nature of adults against childhood.  
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