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Sleepy, Oh So Sleepy
Cover illustration
See permission.
The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.
Sleepy, Oh So Sleepy

written and illus. by Denise Fleming

Denise Fleming is not only the reliable creator of stellar titles for the younger end of the picture-book set, she’s clearly a wise woman in general, who knows that not much is cuter than a sleepy baby animal. Here she’s amassed a gallery of them, one on each spread, from a “tiny baby panda” through a “tiny baby giraffe” to a “tiny baby orangutan,” each of whom is “sleepy, oh so sleepy.” The narrator breaks off the animal tour a few times to inquire “Where’s my sleepy baby?”; come the conclusion, the book answers that question by featuring a little baby human, yawning and curling up in bed with a sock monkey as the covers are pulled over both of them.

It sounds simple, and it is; as with many simple creations, however, it’s a simplicity that requires considerable artistry to achieve. Fleming is a master of knowing when to enrich and when to streamline. The text is straight to the point, repeating the “Tiny baby [animal], sleepy oh so sleepy” structure with the lulling rhythmic regularity of pattering rain, breaking it only to personalize the catalogue by including little listeners in the sleepy story, all the better to wind them down from sleepiness to completely conked out. The soporific refrain is about as close to hypnotic suggestion as prose can get (adults will need to make sure that they don’t succumb to nodding off before the kids do), yet it’s also carefully crafted, with the colloquial flavor making it friendly and reassuring and the array of animal infants offering all the enticing charm of a toyshop window at Christmas.

The art is where simplicity takes on a richness. Fleming turns the adorability setting to max there, of course (she could hardly fail to do so with such subjects), but her collection of arresting close-ups is particularly irresistible because of the skill she brings to bear as she poses her subjects tenderly, humorously, and eloquently. The animal youngsters are blear-eyed and dozing in a dozen different ways: the baby giraffe sags wearily against a parent’s flank, the baby otter tucks his paws under his resting head, the baby joey dangles dreamily over the edge of his mother’s pouch, all compositions suggesting the most touching and spontaneous wildlife photography imaginable. The human moppet is a toasty-toned Everybaby, with a face that could belong to any number of races or mixtures thereof, while the kiddo’s sock monkey (who, on the back cover, is also clearly sound asleep) is of the classic homemade style. The artist’s fiber stencil creations are always touchably dimensional, but here they evince a cozy blankie-soft texture; her colors retain their usual vibrancy, but the palette leans strongly toward sunset-lit earthtones that suggest both warmth and day’s end.

It’s toddler-perfect in its aim, with nothing in it that won’t gratify its audience—no winking beyond them to adults, no sops to the reader-aloud who’s begged to read again and again—yet it’s also a truly gorgeous book in a way that adults will appreciate and admire. Mostly, though, the adults will appreciate that it’s a precisely targeted literary sleep missile, right from the contagious yawn on the cover (a lift of an interior image that sets the book off on the right soporific foot before it even opens), while the toddlers will come for the critters and stay for the blissful unconsciousness.

Deborah Stevenson, Editor


Sleepy, Oh So Sleepy

Cover image from Sleepy, Oh So Sleepy ©2010 by Denise Fleming.  Used by permission of Henry Holt and Company.

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This page was last updated on September 1, 2010.