A cozy autumn read

The first deep conversation I had with Maria took place in the backseat of our gray Honda Accord northbound on Highway 63 on a Sunday night in November during our ride home from Iowa.

She was a year and a half old.

It was dark – we were nearing the winter solstice and the days were short – and I was sitting in the back next to her, a first-time mama habit I extended far beyond her infant months, much to my neighbors’ amusement.

The highway felt lonely – almost hauntingly so. But it was also beautiful, poetic even, to see those glowing windows – squares dotting the horizon, flickers of home. Light penetrating darkness, heat warming the cold.

I talked to Maria about all the families who lived out there, how maybe there was a mommy and a little girl just like her in that house, and I wonder what they are doing right now.

She was intrigued.

I remember tearing up, taken surprise by the depth of the moment: an introduction of sorts to the big world beyond, at once foreign and inviting; a reminder of the home we had whenever we were together, wherever we were.

Today Maria is 4, and she is teaching me how to embrace this season.

She is a climber and a collector, a singer and a sage.

“The most important thing in the history of the world,” she recently said, “is things aren’t always as they seem.”

Maria’s imagination knows no bounds. Once, when she was using tape to render a Barbie doll into a mermaid, she said: “It’s going to be terrific. I have a thought bubble in my mind showing how it will look.”

And so, I was thrilled to discover a new release by Candlewick Press that seemed sure to enchant Maria: Julia Denos’ Windows, the debut picture book illustrated by E.B. Goodale. It is an homage to late-autumn evenings, to excursions and to homecomings. It teaches young readers how to slow down and pay attention, to linger on an image and study its nooks and crannies. And with its wandering protagonist in a red pointed hood, it gives a quiet nod to The Snowy Day.

 The book is full of surprises, like the sunrise that emerges when you slide off the dust jacket.

The endpapers are gorgeous — from dawn till dusk.

The text begins:

At the end of the day, before the town goes to sleep, you can look out your window…

And see more little windows lit up like eyes in the dusk, blinking awake as the lights turn on inside: a neighborhood of paper lanterns.

Maria immediately immersed in the scenes.

 “This looks like a shadow,” she observed. “I would say two cats are here. Now it’s your turn to spot one that I didn’t.”

“I’m guessing this would be her bedroom, way up here,” she said of another silhouette. “And I’m guessing her mom is downstairs feeding the baby.”

On the next page, Maria said, “I think she’s painting a bridge because she chose black.”

The book goes on:

Some windows will have dinner, or TV.

Others are empty and leave you to fill them up with stories.

This is my favorite line, and Maria took the invitation literally, grabbing a marker and drawing on the windows.

For a moment — I must admit — I cringed to see her sully such a gorgeous book.

But then I warmed to the impromptu art. Surely the author would delight in knowing that a child answered her invitation.

Maria drew a mom (at left) and a daughter.

“She’s playing outside,” Maria explained, “and her mommy is saying, ‘Time to come in!'”

She even added our names.

And now I love this book even more.

 Christina Ries is a freelance writer who lives with her husband and three young children in Inver Grove Heights.