Dawn: A vintage watercolor serenade to the world becoming conscious of itself

In praise of the natural optimism of daybreak.

by Maria Popova

Dawn: A Vintage Watercolor Serenade to the World Becoming Conscious of Itself

“In the name of daybreak / and the eyelids of morning / and the wayfaring moon / and the night when it departs,” Diane Ackerman wrote in her wondrous poem-prayer for presence. There is a singular and deeply assuring beauty to the prayerful optimism that daybreak brings. On the darkest of days, the knowledge that the sun will rise is the sole certainty we can hold on to. And when it does rise, it ignites the splendor of a world becoming conscious of itself — the first birdsong, the first breath, the first catlike stretch, the first cup of tea.

That splendor is what the great Polish-American children’s book author and illustrator Uri Shulevitz (b. February 27, 1935) celebrates with uncommon tenderness of heart and brush in his 1974 masterpiece Dawn (public library) — a watercolor serenade to the world as it becomes conscious of itself.

The book opens with a splash of quiet stillness in the final stretch of night.

Under a tree on the shore of the moonlit lake, an old man and a small boy sleep curled beneath their blankets. In spare words and soft watercolors, Shulevitz unspools the new day across the pages. The mountain stands solemn guard over the lake, its reflection shivering under the gentle touch of the breeze.

We see creatures slowly come awake.

Radiating from Shulevitz’s paintings is the aura of absolute, unassailable presence as the old man wakes his grandson and the two begin the quiet ritual of morning — drawing water from the lake, making fire, rolling up their blankets.

With the landscape still blue under the unrisen sun, they push their boat onto the water and row it to the middle of the lake to witness that magical moment when the first rays turn the sky, the mountain, the lake, the whole world from blue to green — the diurnal ignition spark of aliveness.

Complement Dawn, the analog loveliness of which cannot be even half-conveyed on this screen, with Goodnight Moon author Margaret Wise Brown’s little-known vintage celebration of the coming of the new day, The Quiet Noisy Book, then revisit Ohara Hale’s splendid Be Still, Life.