Ever seen a bedtime book for children get them all worked up instead? Often a story can excite a child, the opposite intended effect for a nighttime routine. This isn’t likely to happen with Emily Winfield Martin’s Dream Animals: A Bedtime Journey, the gently paced, rhyming tale of imaginary nocturnal creatures taking sleeping children on nighttime adventures.

“There are animals from long ago / And twice as far away. / Their maps are made of starlight / And can’t be seen by day,” the story opens. These creatures are in charge of delivering children to Dreamland, and it’s their quirky destinations that keep this sweet story from being altogether too cloying. A bear carries a bespectacled boy to “meet peculiar friends” at a “misfit table,” which seats Humpty Dumpty, a robot and more. There’s also a circus with a monkey on a unicycle and small, green, elvish creatures atop a crescent moon.

As if a direct descendant of Mary Chalmers, Martin’s very painterly illustrations feature a moderately romanticized view of childhood, replete with well-behaved, doe-eyed children. It’s a throwback, as if she’s paying homage to the picture books of the mid-1950s. She pulls it off without being derivative. There’s even a refreshing and subtle sense of darkness to some of the spreads; one girl stands in an elfin hollow, and readers can only wonder what magic lurks in the dark beyond her visit with the fairies. Bunnies and bears, your typical picture book fare, are tempered by the inclusion of more unusual animals, such as narwhals and a large moth, with the fantastical, ethereal spreads conveying a kind of gravity in spots.

Many pages feature children sleeping with the stuffed animal versions of the creatures who appear in their dreams (also featured on the elegant endpapers). These are simple drawings on pages the color of a blue, twilight sky, but they’re followed by full-color fantasy visions, made all the more striking by this color contrast.

It’s dreamy, a beautiful send-off to sleep.

Julie Danielson features authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.

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