When a spaceship lands at Cotton Rock, it seems that all of her dreams have come true. But soon the alien has to leave. Will the spaceship ever come back? And if it does, is Heather ready to leave everything on Earth behind? This beautiful story for ages 4-7 about family and dreams travels through space and time to show us that what we are looking for might be closer than we think.
Reviewed by Richard Charlesworth
Lights on Cotton Rock is a tale about escapism, family and ultimately hope; a beautifully crafted picturebook, steeped in nostalgia.
Heather’s detachment from the real world propels the narrative towards experiences out of it. David Litchfield, often referred to as a master of light, beautifully encapsulates this feeling of isolation from the very first page.
A long slither of moonlight, acting as a spotlight, illuminates Heather’s path away from her home – which sits on its own, in the secluded glade. With its empty postbox and static swings, Heather seems to have packed a backpack intent on leaving this empty place behind. The reader follows her as she ventures to a place of solitude and sanctuary: Cotton Rock.
Heather’s fascination with Outer Space is explored by Litchfield in a range of spreads (full double-page, split and panelled). She seems set upon leaving this world behind, switching her torch on/off to signal up, past the towering pine trees, to the starry sky above. The repetitive refrain, and almost rhythmic quality to the ‘off and on’ scenes, are presented in panel form. The use of colour, and lack of it, is expertly realised to show the passing of time and change in Heather’s emotions.
References to late 70s/early 80s Spielberg ‘classics’ abound; ‘Close Encounters…’ and ‘E.T.’ clearly inspiring David’s illustrations – a red Elliott-style hoody featured at the end of the book, too good to just be a coincidence!
As with several of Litchfield’s texts, his digital, multi-layered artwork always brings a sense of wonder and amazement. Throughout the book, the reader experiences similar emotions to Heather as the narrative unfolds upon our very eyes, in synchronicity.
Multi-panelled pages require a different style of reading – more akin to a comic/graphic novel format. Here, wordless storytelling allows readers to fill in the gaps in communication, reminding me of the language and illustration choices of Carson Ellis’ 2016 text Du Iz Tak. In these panels, language is conveyed through facial and body expressions as well as the power of illustration. Keen eyes will notice the reason for Heather’s desire to leave here – three figures with anger clouds spiralling above their heads. Heather is not ready to leave this world fully behind just yet, however, an almost redemptive arc playing out mid-book.
What follows in the second half, is both a passing of time and perhaps a passing of innocence. Heather is now grown up, with her own family – yet something within her still yearns for Outer Space. A weighted sadness/sense of melancholy appears in the second of the panelled spreads. Interestingly, the picturebook structure acts almost like a mirror here, reflecting the panels and semiotic choices seen in the first half of the text.
The notion of dreams not always being what you thought they’d be is explored in the final pages, as Heather’s perseverance and faith is finally restored by the reappearance of her extra-terrestrial friend. Thousands of miles from home, themes of family and friendship resurface, once again explored through the power of illustration.
Lights on Cotton Rock is a perfect text to explore character and emotion. It offers a rich nostalgia, not often found in many contemporary picturebooks. It harks back to a timeless era where exploration and escapism are safely explored in both the reader’s imagination and through Litchfield’s illustration.
Recommended for readers in Years 2, 3 and 4, the book could act as a springboard into a topic on Space, or (more fruitfully) as an opportunity to look at, explore and understand, the techniques, structure and choices associated with picturebook creation.
Having studied the effect that graphic novels may have on their readers in his own research, he is interested in developing children's empathy through a wider range of texts.