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Rachel Captures the Moon

by Richard Ungar

A moon to follow, a moon to capture; red moon, golden moon; a moon making its shining path across the water into the imagination of a child. These two engaging picture books look in very different ways at the moon-lit world, but both offer warmth, humour, and reassurance in their stories, and visual splendour in their illustrations.
The young boy who narrates Red Moon Follows Truck finds the moon’s presence reassuring as he and his parents drive in their truck across Canada to their new home on the West Coast. Anxious about the move, the boy tells us that his dog Gypsy wonders “How far is west? As far as the earth to the moon? I think moving makes her sad. Let me hold you. Good dog.” The boy’s tendency to displace his own concerns onto the dog is a gentle touch of humour beautifully echoed by pictures of the two sitting together, looking out at the moon. Watts’s pictures help make Gypsy a real character, and the bond between boy and dog – reflecting the evident love between the parents and for their son – is conveyed strongly though without sentimentality. Gypsy even slips over a waterfall in order to recover the boy’s lost fishing pole – a brief moment of drama in this simple account of a family’s journey. The plain, strong, understated text of this book is well complemented by the delicate expressiveness of Watts’s illustrations.
In contrast to the realism of Red Moon Follows Truck is Rachel Captures the Moon, a new spin on an old folk tale. In his first children’s book, Toronto lawyer and painter Richard Ungar retells the story of the fantasy village of Chelm, celebrated in an East European Jewish folk tale, where folly reigns but sometimes teaches the way to wisdom. Determined to capture the moon, each villager in turn tries his or her professional skill – cooking, ladder-building, fishing – in order to reach and seize the moon. The collective failure of the adults opens a space for young Rachel, who shows them with her water barrel how she has found a way to capture the moon. Acknowledging Rachel’s resourcefulness and her place in her community, the story nonetheless ends on a note of wry humour as Chelm assures itself that the moon captured by Rachel is superior to the moon that reappears in the sky the next evening!
Ungar’s small black and white pictures on the text pages give appealingly realistic vignettes of characters, while the brilliantly coloured main pictures are exuberant celebrations of village life with a nod to Chagall (and even a fiddler on a roof). His text conveys the relish of the storyteller, though it is not quite as assured as his paintings.
Both Ungar and Watts include details to follow from picture to picture: a Chelm villager’s knitting develops as the moon waxes, and since Gypsy the dog likes to chase rabbits, one is present in each picture, though sometimes readers have to look carefully to discover it. In both stories, the moon symbolizes distance and the unreachable, yet its constant presence is reassuring. (Neither story confronts the problem of those nights when the moon is dark!)