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Singing Away the Dark


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Audio clip of Author Caroline Woodward on CBC Radio show DNTO

Audio clip of Author and Lennard Lighthouse Keeper Caroline Woodward on Long Beach Radio

Audio clip of the CBC's North by Northwest with Sheryl Mackay interview

Singing Away the Dark
ISBN 978-1-897476-41-3 • Simply Read Books • 2010

Now translated into French, Korean & Bulgarian language editions.
A 2012 Canadian Children's Book Centre starred "Best Book" picture book category!
Finalist for the 2011 Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Prize
A 2010-2011 Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon Illustrator's Award Finalist.
Nominated for the 2011 Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Award (Picture Book category).
Nominated for the 2011-2012 Chocolate Lily Award (Picture Book category).

How I Came to Write Singing Away the Dark

I was born in 1952 and lived with my family on a homestead in the north Peace River region of British Columbia, Canada. When my father, born in a coal-mining village in Wales, arrived in 1937 to begin his new life, he had to cut down poplar and spruce trees with an axe in order to grow a garden and plant small fields with grain and hay crops.  Everyone rode horses on the trails between their houses until roads were built by making some of the trails wide enough for wagons and sleighs driven by teams of horses.

The year before I started Grade One (we didn’t have kindergarten), a school bus was brought in to serve our small farming community. Before then, students rode horses to school but we lived too far away for a safe ride for me.  My parents were thinking of buying land close to the school just so we could attend. But by 1957, there were enough passable roads for a bus and enough children to fill a two-room school. There were four grades in each room, 1-4 and 5-8.

Still, our farm on the riverbanks was tucked between and behind three farms, well off any school bus route. There were five barbwire gates to get through on one mile-long farm road going east to a passable side-road. The other northwest route to the school was nearly three miles long with only two gates. But there was a steep set of creek banks on either side of an old wooden bridge that our horses did not like walking on and worse, a long stretch where the dark, thick forest hemmed in the narrow wagon trail on both sides. Black bears and coyotes were very common. In the winter, it would often be cold enough to freeze fingers, toes and exposed parts of our faces if socks weren’t pulled up properly, mittens were lost and scarves and hats weren’t pulled down to protect our faces and ears especially.

My mother was home with three younger children, including a baby, and my father sometimes had to work in sawmill camps away from the farm to earn money. We didn’t have a car and even if we did, it would often be too cold to start. We didn’t have electricity to plug the car in either. To top it off, the snow plough only came all the way down our road to our house two or three times every winter. I couldn’t take our fierce and loyal dog, Sam, with me because he might be a nuisance when we crossed our neighbour’s yard so he had to stay home too. It was clear that I had to walk to the school bus stop by myself and the safest way was to take the route to the east, the one with five barbwire gates, two of which opened onto our neighbour’s barnyard where their cattle were fed during the winter months.

This route also had one stretch where tall spruce trees grew on each side of the road. It was a scary stretch because I could hear noises in the forest but it was too dark to see anything when I was walking to the school bus stop early in the morning. In the north, the morning sun is much later to rise and the sun sets much earlier than in it does in southern latitudes. One time on my walk, I heard muffled thumping noises in the forest and it wasn’t the familiar and pleasant sound of a prairie chicken beating its wings either. I wanted to yell, “Stay away from me whoever you are!” but only a small, dry squeak came out of my throat. I was right in the middle of the dark stretch, where I couldn’t see the end or the beginning. Ahead there was an open field and another prickly hard-to-open gate before I could run across the field. I couldn’t turn back and go home because that wouldn’t solve the problem and besides, I had to catch the school bus.

I opened my mouth and took a big breath of cold air and made an instant decision. If I shouted, whoever was making the rustling, thumping noises would soon figure out that I was just a six year old Grade One girl on a dark trail all by herself. So I took another deep breath and started singing as loudly as I could. I sang songs that my mother sang at home, like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and Michael Row the Boat Ashore. I sang songs I’d heard on the radio, like O Susanna and Red River Valley. I sang songs we were learning in school, like Frere Jacques, all three rounds of it, in French and English. I cheered myself up because I liked singing very much and the songs did not reveal how afraid I was, to my own set of ears at least. The happy ending is that I survived the long dark stretch and I sang my way through it every time I walked to and from the school bus stop ever after.

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Reviews by the People That Really Matter: Grade 3 Kids!

Emailie:  I liked the story Singing Away the Dark because it was a true story.  I like how she explained about her book.
Sean:  I liked Singing Away The Dark because it had a ton of detail.
Emmett:  I liked how she showed us the stories she wrote.
Sam:  I liked the books.  I liked all the titles
Hunter:  I Like how she made the books; they were really epic
Alyssa:  I like how Singing Away The Dark was a true story and it had nice pictures.
Grace:  My favorite part was that Caroline was enthusiastic and nice.  She wasn't grumpy; she was happy

Winter Story Warms the Heart – By Fran Ashdown, North Shore News, Nov 30, 2011

Singing Away the Dark, by Caroline Woodward, illustrated by Julie Morstad (Simply Read Books, $18.95)

Singing Away the Dark resonated deeply with me as it brought back memories of my school days in Prince Rupert.

Instead of trudging down a plank road in the dark to catch a water taxi to school as I did, the girl in this story leaves her home in the winter dark and walks through the fields and woods to meet the school bus. She is young and alone and clearly apprehensive about having to venture forth. The minimalist-style illustrations reveal her anxiety and aptly depict the spooky aspect of the woods and the empty and vast landscape. We are told she is just six years old and, like most children, she is equipped with a very active imagination. The worst fears of childhood are ones that are nebulous and hard to define, and unseen shapes and fearful noises rank as pretty fear-inducing to my mind. This little girl is truly frightened but she is also aware that she has an important task, which is getting herself to the school bus on time. Rather than give up and return home (as I am sure some of us would have been tempted to do) she struggles to find a way to release her fear by singing. In a small but heroic manner she gets herself through "Wild Beast Valley" and endures the snow and howling winds from the north in the milelong trek. It is clear that she has achieved an important victory when she reaches the comfort and security of the bus. The end notes tell the reader that the author grew up on a Cecil Lake homestead in the Peace River area where "all the children are brave and tough and where she really did walk a mile to her school bus stop."

The illustrations are simple and totally effective, from the endpapers with their repeating print of winter trees against a snowy background to the simple drawings against white backgrounds. Sometimes the little girl is a tiny figure in a two-page spread and the reader can see the scope of the world she inhabits. Later, when she has achieved her goal, she is shown as a much larger figure dominating the centre of the illustration.

This is truly a lovely little book and its theme of overcoming your fear is universal. I look forward to seeing more books from this very successful author-illustrator team.

Read more:

Singing Away the Dark – Starred Review, Quill and Quire, Jan/Feb 2011

It seems a parental (and grandparental) duty to inform children about the daily hardships of the past. These conversations often make note of the long-ago, mile-long, snowbound walk to school (usually uphill in both directions). The B.C. duo of author Caroline Woodward and the illustrator Julie Morstad have taken this cliché and transformed it into a delicate, brilliantly perceptive picture book about a rural child’s long journey to the school bus.

When the steely blue darkness of a country winter morning becomes too frightening for a six-year-old girl, she begins to sing. Singing helps brighten the darkness, quiet the howling wind, and makes the cattle, blocking the road seem less beastly. All ends happily when she sees headlights appear in the darkness and is embraced by the warmth of the school bus.

The frightened young girl in Singing Away the Dark finds comfort in her kinship with the natural world, a response that is both authentic and poetic. As her unease grows, she says, “I see a line of big, old trees, marching up the hill. ‘I salute you, Silent Soldiers. Help me if you will.’” There are no Disney moments with smiling, waving foliage, just a child finding an ally in nature. Similarly, her singing does not take the form of a contrived, triumphant musical number. Instead the girl seems to be murmuring to herself, unselfconsciously lost in her imagination.

Morstad’s art further adds to the story’s charm with the vintage, cozy feel of a 1950s Christmas card. The images are part Clement Hurd and part Julie Flett, combing the style of a classic bedtime story with an acute awareness of the delicacy and fragility of nature. This quietly stunning tale empowers all young children – whether they get to school by snowshoe or SUV – to overcome fear with imagination.

Singing Away the Dark.

Caroline Woodward. Illustrated by Julie Morstad.
Vancouver, BC: Simply Read Books, 2010.
36 pp., hardcover, $18.95.
ISBN 978-1-897476-41-3.

Kindergarten-grade 2 / Ages 5-7.

Review by Natalie Schembri.

*** ½ /4


"I must be brave," I tell myself.

The winds come howling from the North. My eyes begin to sting. I struggle on through endless snow, And all the time I sing.

Alongside Julie Morstad's absolutely charming and wintry illustrations, Caroline Woodward's story provides hopeful warmth as a little girl journeys to school through the dark forest one early winter morning. The illustrative plot moves from the forest's dark and mysterious shades of black, teal, and blue to more comforting scenes that reflect the protective glow of the luminous winter snow. The visual transition from darkness to light occurs as the little girl vocalizes a song of confidence to accompany her travels to school. As "the darkness disappears," the little girl is able to navigate her way through fields, fences, and trees with ease.

"I sing for sun, I sing for strength, I sing for warm toes, too," declares the little girl. Her rhythmic words provide a comforting interior embrace that also functions to protect her from the fierce winter winds. Like her red wooly mittens and charcoal-colored pom-pom hat, the little girl's song offers a defense from the "creaks and groans and hoots and howls" of the natural world.

Woodward's eloquently phrased words enlist the reader in an entirely moving experience through the wintry pages and snow-covered hills of Singing Away the Dark. Most notably, Woodward's poetic story provides readers, young and old, with a celebration of language through a little girl who finds consolation in the power of song.

I would highly recommend Singing Away the Dark for school and public libraries. The lovely combination of language and illustration makes this story an ideal and heartening read to soothe the fearful sound of blustering winds and the image of dark skies this winter season.

Highly Recommended.

Natalie Schembri, a Masters student living in London, ON, is a firm believer and promoter of literature and lifelong learning.

School Library Journal Review
Review of the day December 27, 2010

picThe range of different going to school books varies wildly. This is understandable. After all, the act of attending school is one of the first moments of autonomy a child experiences. This is particularly true in parts of the world where children are trusted to get themselves to school without the constant hovering aid of their parental units. In America, much of the school year takes place when the days are short and nights are long. As such, Singing Away the Dark presents a going-to-school concept that I’ve not seen really done before. In this case, the fear of going to school isn’t what the child will encounter once there. It’s about the journey just to get to the bus itself. The fear in this book is far deeper than just a mere anxiety over classmates and teachers. It’s fear of the dark and what it holds and hides, and how one small child can make that fear go away by simply putting her fears to song.

“When I was six and went to school, / I walked a long, long way . . . / I leave my house, so nice and warm, / on a windy winter’s day.” A country girl takes off one day on her regular trip across a wooded snowy mile in order to reach the school bus. The problem? The darkness of the pre-dawn is more than a little frightening. Fortunately the girl has learned that if she sings loud and strong her fears will go away. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t other things to watch out for as well (bulls, etc.) but in the end she sees the safe lights of the school bus ahead and she’s made it for another day.

Ms. Woodward’s story appears to come from her own youth of growing up in British Columbia’s Peace River region. Her little bio at the end of the book says as much, though she has the wherewithal to include a tongue-in-cheek, “where all the children are brave and tough and where she really did walk a mile to her school bus stop, uphill both ways.” There’s just the slightest hint of Lake Woebegone to that statement, I think. Now Ms. Woodward’s writing itself is spare and to the point. So much so that it took a third reading for me to realize that she’d written this story in rhyme. I see that lack of notice on my part as a good thing. Clearly her wordplay feels as natural as speech if the reader doesn’t stumble over any awkward rhymes or phrases in the course of the tale. In fact, you get so into the story itself that the rhyming pattern is the last thing on your mind. “The cattle block the road ahead. / The bull is munching hay. / I softly sing to calm myself / and plan the safest way.”

picI have a special appreciation for illustrators that can capture that strangest of visual concepts: nighttime snow. It has a quality to it that daytime snow lacks. A couple picture books are particularly good at showing off the harsh contrast between black skies and white grounds. Owl Moon by Jane Yolen, illustrated by John Schoenherr would be the first example to come to mind. The far more city-centric, but no less pitch perfect, Snow Day by Komako Sakai is another great example. Morstad’s illustrations are tricky because unlike those other books she has to present early morning darkness without so much as a streak of dawn. In essence, she has to capture that rare quality of distinguishing between night and day without relying on light to make up the difference. She does this mostly through the degree to which you can make out the heroine’s clothing. In spite the dark, you can always make her out without difficulty. It gives you the sense that she exists during daytime hours, then.

picNot that the images don’t work on other levels as well. Since we are reading what is in essence a memory, Morstad had to decide whether or not to make the book look historical or contemporary. She’s gone with historical, but very little actually dates the story. The little girl’s clothes aren’t obviously dated, since hats and scarves and mittens for kids rarely go out of style (and nothing as ridiculous as legwarmers pops up either). The girl’s yellow lunchpail has a fine retro feel to it, but not so much that it stands out. As for the school bus itself, those magnificent methods of entling transportation have changed almost not at all since I was a small fry myself. They are the eternal yellow harbingers of schooltime. Instantly recognizable. Forever unchanging, no matter where you are.

It’s the combination that makes Singing Away the Dark stand apart from the pack. Very few books about six-year-olds can show kids that age act in realistically brave ways. Yet a story about a girl who has to walk a mile in the dark and the snow all by herself is going to hit a chord. Even better is the fact that the book offers a solution to her problem: How to confront early morning scary darkness? The solution is practical and may inspire real life kids to do the same. Beautiful on both a visual and a literary level, Morstad and Woodward are a match made in heaven. If you’re looking for going-to-school books outside of the usual fare that also happen to be easy on the eyes, this is one of the finer offerings out there. A real treat and a great little title. Well worth discovering.

For ages 4-8.

Kirkus Review

In the back of beyond, a girl sets out for the schoolbus stop, a good long cross-country hike away. It’s winter. The snow nearly tops her boots; the fog of her breath streams behind her. It’s still dark, artfully evoked by the deep inkiness of Morstad’s night sky (played off against luminescent birch trunks and dazzled by a pair of red mittens and a yellow lunchbox) and Woodward’s verse: “I don’t allow myself to stop / to look between the trees, / to peer at shapes that shift and hide / where it’s too dark to see.” The pictures and text follow her as she wends over hill and hollow, breaking into song to keep the specters at bay and stave off cold. The tingly spookiness of the rural dark is slowly, gently beveled as the story takes on the dawn, as the girl passes a farm getting its day under way in the early hours, the lights of the bus cutting through the remnants of night. Night can be a very alien world, but this beckoning book is like an invitation to come walk there. (Picture book. Ages 4-8)

Classroom Suggestions for Singing Away the Dark

Q. Draw a map of your walk to school. What are your favourite parts of the walk? Why? Are there any scary parts? If so, what do you do to manage your fear so that you can make it safely to school and back? Do you have adults or older students helping you get to school safely (crosswalk guard, parent, big sister or brother) especially in Kindergarten or Grade One?

Q. How would you describe being very, very cold? Very, very hot? Tell a short story about someone your age being uncomfortable due to the weather and being afraid of something unknown.

Q. What animals are you afraid of? Why? What animals, real or imaginary, would you like to protect you if you were on a walk by yourself?

Q. How do you help yourself stay calm when you are in a scary place or if you are suddenly lost in a mall or if you don’t know where everybody else is and it’s getting dark?

Q. Do you have favourite trees in your yard or near the school or in a park that you think of as strong trees? What do you like about them?

Q. Have you ever sung songs to yourself to cheer yourself up? What are your favourite songs to sing, if this is the case?

Q. How does Mrs. Margie help the little girl in the book on her way to the school bus stop? Do you think you have good neighbours who are making sure you are safe and warm?

Q. How would you help a younger student with a problem they were having on the way to school? Escalating examples: shoe laces were untied; one mitten was lost and it was very cold; boots were full of snow; school artwork fell out of school bag or daypack onto the street; bigger students were pushing them around just to be mean; a loudly barking dog was loose from its yard and following the child; an adult was trying to get close and talk with the young child and he or she was confused or afraid of them.

Get Verbal!

Invent your own journey, from action to action. Write short sentences, using the verbs below OR write at least one other word which can mean the same thing.  Have fun using action verbs from Singing Away the Dark by Caroline Woodward (Simply Read Books, Publisher).




Click here for a printable PDF for Get Verbal!

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The perfect activity for Singing Away the Dark!

Complete step by step classroom activity guide with templates for making shadow puppets.

Shadow Puppet Guide

Click here for a printable PDF for the Shadow Puppet Classroom Guide

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