Nov 16, 2020

LIGHTS OUT: Losing DARK of NIGHT to Light Pollution

Nonfiction picture books are enjoying glorious (and valuable) success in the publishing world. What's more, the bar for these books is getting higher and wider regarding possible subject matter, intended audiences, supplemental content, and expert collaboration. This is as it should be. Kids can begin lifelong careers, hobbies, and fascinations through discoveries in picture books.
Sometimes, though, a serious nonfiction topic is addressed with grace and persuasive authority through fiction. A heart-tugging approach to hard science can be an equally powerful introduction to nonfiction issues and topics. This is the case with Cybils Awards fiction picture book nominee LIGHTS OUT.

The Creative Company, 2020
Marsha Diane Arnold lends her magical storytelling voice to the topic of LIGHT POLLUTION, revealing its impact on familiar life forms. Most creatures have evolved to respond to daily and seasonal cycles of light and darkness over millennia. Their survival depends on these instinctual patterns, which have been increasingly  disrupted by barely two centuries of population growth and resulting artificial light. Humans are steadily destroying the "Dark of Night" with artificial light, and the change is happening far too quickly to allow for various species to adapt.

Arnold's opening message addresses this with a brief description of ways brightened night skies are a dangerous form of pollution, ways that we ignore at the cost of losing valuable and beloved species from our natural world.

That brief introductory passage is written in a friendly, explanatory style. 
The language Arnold uses to explore this scientific reality in the story that follows adopts a lyrical, emotional, and compelling style, one ideally paired with the illustrations of Susan Reagan. 
Begin by examining that cover image and title. Creatures of air, land, and water peer out of the shadows, distressed at the unexpected LIGHT of the night. The design to the title itself is worth considering. The progressively light-to-dark letters are each slightly fractured, and the "I" is represented by a beetle. Adults wo read to children often miss these intentional elements, but kids find them every single time. 
The beetle is a character in the story and merits our attention on every page. End papers show a rush of newly hatched sea turtles, their race urging us forward to the opening page turn. I have no doubt that some young eyes will "read" them as stars spreading across the page. 

The story begins with Little Fox and Beetle, whose upper case letters indicated to me that they are each individuals, anthropomorphized just enough to share their views and voices with us, the readers, but retaining authentic identities of their species from the natural world. A few lines of economic but imperative language occupy the otherwise blank left spread, faced by a brightly lit night scene filled with shafts and glows and bouncing brightness:

"Little Fox peeks out from her den.

Beetle flits above her.

'Lights out!' she barks.

But the lights stay on."

The following pages reveal the many sources of light, in every color, shape, and direction. The illustrations are as masterful as the text at introducing the nighttime lights we take for granted, recognizable here as sinister assaults on Nature's much-needed Dark. 
Dark emerges as threatened by the lights as the animals are. 
Migrating birds and nocturnal owls are affected. Little Fox and Beetle wonder if Dark is lost, and they set out to help. Throughout their travels and encounters with fellow night creatures, the Dark of Night eludes them, It has been crowded out by lights from manmade sources, lights that stop the mating songs of Frog, that confuse the internal star maps of birds, that alter Bear's hibernation instincts. 
These animals become a band of journeyers, visiting many landforms, but unable to locate the Dark of Night and all that it has to offer.

When those hatchling sea turtles need their help, the intrepid animals do their best, leading readers to a set of final spreads and text that deserve to be framed and displayed. The imagery of the art and the satisfying story resolve make this picture book one of the best I've read this year. 

This can be read as a sweet animal story-time book, as an extended analogy or fable about an important science topic, as an illustration mentor for mastery of light, shadow, and minimal color palette, or as a charming bedtime book. In each case it will rise to the top of those categories with room to spare. The power of this seemingly simple, quiet story is the balance among characterization, storytelling, mood, language, dramatic tension, specificity of detail, and universal global implications. 

I hope you'll make it a point to read this book, and then share it. Young audiences are likely to become so invested that they may seek answers to the important question: "What can we do to help?" Arnold mentions an excellent resource in that opening statement. If you click LIGHT POLLUTION above, you can learn about ways to actively reduce the damage that our "civilized" lives are doing with articifical light to a vast network of living things, including ourselves.

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