The Daily Heller: Moonlighting

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There is little to compare with moonlight for the dramatic yet decidedly melancholic shadows it casts. Werewolves not withstanding, as a child I loved waking to a full or partial moon and even more so now I find it a comforting reminder that there is another state of being between night and day.

I think kid’s book author and illustrator Stephen Savage feels the same way. His latest book, Moonlight (Neal Porter Books/Holiday House) captures those magical illuminations of silver white. This bedtime story about light at night soothes weary eyes.

Moonlight shines on Aug. 23. In advance of its publication, Savage discusses what the moon touches of his senses.

You are very focused on my favorite kind of environment. The light of the full, half and quarter moon is so beautiful. Is this something that you believe engages children’s primal thoughts?
I adore the moonlight. And yes! Gotta love those primal thoughts as they are the stock and trade of the children’s book author and illustrator. It is the ability to access these thoughts and feelings that makes someone a great kid’s book artist. Maurice Sendak, Tomie dePaola (to whom the book is dedicated), Margaret Wise Brown, Lois Lenski, Roger Duvoisin … these folks knew how to channel their childhoods. Spending time with little kids helps, too. I remember strolling my daughter around one evening when she was a toddler, and seeing her slowly point towards the sky over Brooklyn, and with only a few words in her vocabulary, slowly utter the word “moon.” I’ll never forget the rapturous look on her face.

I love waking up in the country, where I see the moon shadows so vividly, even without my glasses on. I prefer it to sunlight (sometimes). Do you have that same sense of wonder?
I love getting out of Brooklyn and seeing the moonlight and the starlight (both in short supply in the city). Regarding sunlight: not a fan as I get older (certainly direct sunlight).

How do you feel when the moonlight begins to fade?
Well … if it’s fading because a cloud is passing in front of the moon—that could mean that a werewolf is nearby and that you need to lock the doors.

I used to feel safe in the moonlight and hated the dark. Do you fear the darkness?
The darkness doesn’t scare me anymore. Neither does the ocean (another primal fear). But what is up with all these friggin’ shark attacks this summer? My primal fear alarm bells are ringing! Certainly, as a kid, I was scared of the dark. My parents knew I couldn’t fall asleep unless my bedroom door was cracked. As a teenager, I recall going on family backpacking trips and experiencing absolute terror whenever I would wake up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. Most of the time I’d just hold it. But if the moon was out, I might venture out of the tent. Very slowly! All that said, seems a bit sad that we “grow up” and lose touch with those childhood thoughts and feelings.

You told me the book was inspired by a cover you did for The New York Times Book Review. How so?
My editor, Neal Porter, liked my 2010 New York Times Book Review cover (for a mystery novel by Martin Cruz Smith called Three Stations). It was a very simple image of a girl in a train station at night, and was filled with suspense and mystery. Neal asked, “can this be a book?” I replied, “uh … OK. What’s it about?” He said: “light and shadow.” Took me 10 years to make good on that very simple idea.

Most of your work is high contrast and minimal in the best graphic sense. In fact, you’ve become more minimalist as you’ve progressed. Where does this simplicity come from?
In the early ’90s, my brother (art historian Kirk Savage) gave me a book of luggage labels (y’know, those stickers vacationers would put on the sides of their steamer trunks with the names of exotic locations and posh hotels on them) and something just clicked. Those simple, banal, utilitarian images felt like “home” (as weird as that sounds). Perhaps they remind me of the graphics I grew up with in the mid-1960s. Or perhaps it’s a primal thing and my brain is hard-wired for graphic shape rather than line. I can’t explain the deep connection.

Since then, I’ve steeped myself in the work ofMidcentury greats, like poster-makers Cassandre and Jack Purvis, kid’s book artists Feodor Rojankovsky and Leonard Weisgard, and painters like Stuart Davis and Jacob Lawrence.