I think it's entirely possible that Jane Yolen may be the most prolific children's author living today. Don't believe me? Try clicking on her name to pull up a list of the books she's written. Then take a gander at the literally hundreds (if not, dare I say it, thousands) of books alive today because of her. It's a bit of a relief then that at least one of them won the Caldecott Medal. "Owl Moon" deserved it too. It is a sweet yet not overly sentimental tale about a nighttime owling trip taken by a girl and her father.
In this tale we first get a spectacular view from above (owl's eye view, I should say) of a small farm in the country. Two figures leave the warm home to tramp in the snow. The moon is brightly lit above so that (as the book says), "the sky seemed to shine". The girl has never been owling before but she understands the rules intrinsically. One must be especially quiet on these occasions. Once in a while the girl's father calls a deep, "Whoo-whoo-who-who-whooooooo" into the woods, but he does not receive a reply. They walk on through the cold until they come to a clearing in the woods where the snow is so clean and pure that it looks like a bowl of milk. The father hoots again and this time receives an answer. An owl comes closer and closer, finally landing on a nearby branch just as the father shines his flashlight on it. There, the reader sees a magnificent two page spread of an owl, its large wings open beside it, regarding the girl and her parent. Then it's off and the adventure is done. Says the girl, "I was a shadow as we walked home".
A couple remarkable occurrences marked the creation of this book. Jane Yolen's husband would often go owling with their three children, and she felt (quite rightly) that it would make a great picture book. By coincidence, illustrator John Schoenherr was an owling fellow himself. And though he had given up book illustrating in favor of his own personal paintings, Schoenherr was convinced to try his hand one more time with "Owl Moon". The fact of the matter is, it's a very good thing he did. Though the story in this book is lovely and telling, the pictures really bring it to life. You can read a sentence like, "I could feel the cold, as if someone's icy hand was palm-down on my back", but its only going to strike home if the accompanying picture is appropriate and evocative. Here, fortunately, Schoenherr excels. It must be very difficult to paint nighttime scenes that are lit by snow-reflecting moonlight, yet the book displays this very particular style perfectly. Now to be perfectly frank, I found myself grumbling for about half this book about its medal. I thought the pictures were lovely but I hadn't yet seen anything that really stood out or took my breath away. Then I came to the aforementioned two-page spread of the owl sitting on a branch. In that single picture Schoenherr completely gives away how talented he is. The owl is completely realistic yet overwhelmingly majestic. There's energy and life to this bird as it crouches in the unfamiliar light. For the girl and her father, the simple act of seeing this animal as close as this makes the entire trip worthwhile. Schoenherr understands this, and so the picture makes reading the entire book just as worthwhile as well.
The text is quiet and elegant, the watercolors evocative and intense. For the bedtime story that is realistic while retaining fantastical elements, this book is an excellent choice. Consider it highly recommended all around. Two enthusiastic thumbs way way up.