Lighting Up the Night : ‘Dusk,’ by Uri Shulevitz


In the interval between Hanukkah and Christmas, as we head toward the winter solstice, light — from the sun, streetlamps, or candles — seems more precious than ever. In his new picture book, “Dusk,” the Warsaw-born author and illustrator Uri Shulevitz follows a little boy and his grandfather on their afternoon walk through the streets of New York, following the shifting lights of the short day as they go.

Shulevitz — who won a Caldecott medal for “The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship” (1968) and three Caldecott Honors, one of them for “Snow” — lets his watercolors do most of the narrative work here. His main characters, described simply as “boy with dog and grandfather with beard,” are first shown bundled in hats and coats, walking along a residential street, with yellow sunlight angling steeply across the house roofs. Later, they watch an intensely orange sun sink toward the horizon. “’It’s getting dark,’ said boy with dog. ‘How sad, the day is no more.’” “Dusk,” his grandfather replies, noncommittally.

As they continue into the city, the setting sun casts a last glow behind the streetscapes. In Greenwich Village and on the Lower East Side, eccentric characters make odd and entertaining speeches about their holiday shopping: “I won’t pause, I won’t rest / till I find the sweetest, the best. / Candies for Mandy / and cookies for Randy,” says a retired acrobat in a beret. A grinning tourist snapping photos in Midtown proclaims something similar in his own funny argot: “Dursky musky, dusky zdat / kholidaysky ikla zat, / sveet candoosky ikla bloosky, / bedye funnye ikla zdat.” (Try reading that aloud without smiling.)

The reward of this walk — for the reader as well as the boy and his grandfather — are Shulevitz’s depictions of the holiday displays on Fifth Avenue and Times Square. “As nature’s lights go out,” he writes, “City’s lights come on.” Streets are lit with garlands of snowflake decorations, brass bands glitter in front of enormous illuminated Christmas trees, and snowy, toy-filled wonderlands fill the shop windows.

Many holiday books focus on the traditions and stories of one particular religion — or ignore faith altogether. Shulevitz opts for a more evenhanded approach that seems just right for a city as proudly diverse — but far from secular — as New York. On one side street, the boy and grandfather look up at an apartment building where three windows show equally festive displays of a menorah, a Kwanzaa candelabrum and a Christmas tree, all ablaze with lights. Three little faces peek out, excited by their own observances. Though his text leaves much unsaid, Shulevitz’s art suggests that in their reverence for light, these holy days have much in common and go well together, each doing its part to brighten the New York night.