Books·How I Wrote It

How Paul Harbridge and Matt James captured the magic of moonlight

When the Moon Comes is one of five books nominated for the 2018 TD Canadian Children's Literature Award.
When The Moon Comes is a picture book written by Paul Harbridge and illustrated by Matt James. (Matt James, Penguin Random House, Paul Harbridge)

Growing up in Gravenhurst, Ont., When the Moon Comes author Paul Harbridge was no stranger to playing hockey on outdoor rinks. But as the book's illustrator Matt James will attest, there's something universal about the magic of moonlight and time spent outdoors — even if you're not a hockey lover. 

When the Moon Comes was one of five finalists for the 2018 TD Canadian Children's Literature Award, the country's richest prize for kids literature. The book won the 2018 Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award

In their own words, Harbridge and James reflect on their award-nominated collaboration. 

Celebrating the power of the natural world

Paul says: "When my son was about seven years old he started playing league hockey. And we went up to see my dad in Gravenhurst and he told us this long, dramatic story about how he used to play hockey on a frozen beaver pond. Well that caught both our attention and it started to percolate in my head. I thought about when I was growing up in Gravenhurst. Our house had been cut out of the woods and was surrounded all the way around by forest. I remember that the woods were our main playground and we played there day and night — summer and winter — and some of the best nights were when the moon was full like daytime. I tried to capture that sense of awe in the story."

Matt says: "I was never a great hockey player, but the walking-through-the-woods parts of Paul's story felt familiar to me. Being wide-eyed and looking up at the stars and wondering what was happening. This book is about the feeling that this is something that you're not in control of — that nature is bigger than all of us. A lot of the book is about darkness. And kids tend to be drawn to those darkest scenes… especially where you can't really tell what's going on. There were endless attempts at almost entirely black pages with just a little bit of a moon. Then the rest fell into place." 

An interior shot from the picture book When the Moon Comes. (Tundra Books)

Capturing the magic of moonlight

Matt says: "It was such a fun book to illustrate, but in some ways I thought it was going to be easier than it was. I've drawn lots of pictures of hockey players, lots of Canadian woods. I thought it would be a piece of cake, but it was one of the most challenging things I've worked on. I tried to make things look like moonlight at first. But none of that helped me. Instead I sort of accidentally came upon something that felt like moonlight." 

Paul says: "There's one page that has my favourite picture. The line is, 'Back through the snow of the swamp we wade. The little blue shadows of rabbit tracks disappearing beneath our feet. Back between the ridges, keeping ever in the moonlight.' I'm amazed at how Matt captured the idea of moonlight on that page. The whole bottom half is just dark, dark and at the top they're walking around in this brightness that looks just like moonlight." 

Responses from readers — young and old

Paul says: "We've heard from a lot of parents and grandparents who say it brought back a lot of memories. I've read the book several times now to classrooms of children and the kids like it, but I have to make sure I explain a couple of things. Like nobody knows what a tamarack is. I have to explain to children what a beaver flood is. But I think they relate to the magic of the night, just like older readers. I've started to do votes when I read then book. I say: 'What do you think this book is about? Is this a nature book? A hockey book? Or a friendship book?' Some of them see it one way, some see it another way. Then I tell them: 'That's the way literature should work. Everybody gets something different from it!' 

Paul Harbridge and Matt James's comments have been edited for length and clarity.