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Normalising Night Wakings: Anna si sveglia [Hannah's Night]


When I found this book by Japanese Illustrator Komako Sakai a couple of years ago, I was driven into it by the title, which in Italian is 'Anna wakes up' instead of Hannah's Night chosen for the English edition.
My first daughter was two and we were still facing multiple night wakings. You know that crazy phase of your life as a parent when day and night mix up in a blur of fatigue, and you think you will never ever get some sleep again?  We were there.
Just when she was starting to sleep through the night every now and then, the bump carrying her sister started to show, and the wakings became again more frequent.
Now that she sleeps generally well and can go back to sleep without my help, I'm back to that point with my youngest: dealing with a separation anxiety peak on one side and with the first attempts to help her being more independent on the other.

I looked into books that could help her process nighttime better from an emotional point of view, modelling independence and supporting self-confidence.
It was a way to help her of course, but also to help me, since I would be thrown back to the care of a newborn within a few months.
Most books I found at that time featured themes that I didn't want to touch in this case, like (overcoming) the fear of the dark, of monsters, or dream-like settings where the child ends up in exciting yet fantastic night adventures.
The title Anna si sveglia held all the (hyper)realism I was looking for, and so did Sakai's magnificent illustrations.

It's a night like any other. Hannah is in her bed, then she opens her eyes and wakes up.
She checks her big sister next to her an then she peeks at her parents' bedroom, everyone is fast sleep.
Followed by her cat she goes downstairs, uses the toilet, then heads to the kitchen for a snack.
When she is back in her room she still can't sleep, so she plays quietly until dawn, when she starts rubbing her eyes and falls asleep.
Like in Emily's Baloon (Il palloncino di Akiko) and In the Meadow (Nell'erba) the story takes place in a very short space of time, probably just a couple of hours here, and it develops around a af ew simple, ordinary actions. Yet it is so dense, full of meaning.

There are a few things that I truly love in this short story.
Firstly, Hannah doesn't wake up because of some disturbing factor, she is neither afraid of the dark nor dreaming, she just wakes up and opens her eyes
There is no attempt to find a cause. Night wakings are in fact normal for grown ups (but we are often to knocked out to even realise :) and even more natural for young children, since their sleep cycles are different,  and the physiology of their developing brain is different.
There is therefore no attempt to 'fix' the process, Hannah is not worried about the fact of being awake alone in the middle of the night, there is no adult trying to settle her back to sleep.

Secondly, there is Hannah's choice: she must be three or four years old max, but she doesn't do any of the obvious cry/call mum/enter her parents' bedroom to sleep in the big bed.
She leaves the room quietly, walks down stairs followed by her cat Ciro, uses the toilet unaided, then she totally enjoys that moment of being the only one awake in the house.
She is utterly adorable when taking some 'forbidden' cherries from the fridge (feeding the cat some milk too:) and then as she gently takes her sister's doll and pencils to secretly play under the blanket, before falling asleep next to her.

These actions feel totally normal and so is the absence of light. At some point Hannah looks out of the window and acknowledges that it's dawn 
'a new day arrived without even realising'

That's a lot of awareness and independence for a little girl.
Japanese children are well known to be far more independent at a young age than Western children, this book is of course a photograph of that aspect.
Still, Hannah could be any child, independence  is something that needs to be fostered day after day in order to naturally thrive, starting at birth.
Hannah doesn't sleep (she probably never did) in a cot bed for example, she is free to leave her bed and her room and this is now a natural process for her.  
Japanese children typically share a floor bed with their parents before moving to their own bed. Attachment and freedom are both essential requirements for developing self-confidence.

She is free from nappies, and uses the toilet independently, she is clearly used to do that alone, without asking for help. 
Her independence also sets her free from her parents' resettling attempts, so she can find her own solution to the 'issue' of being awake, until she naturally goes back to sleep.
She is independent, and free.

The narration is minimal and factual, there is no room for suspense here, it's a completely reassuring story with realistic and sweet illustrations. The way Komako Sakai draws toddlers and cats is absolutely unique and adorable.

This book is a must have for any parent struggling with night wakings. It is helpful for toddlers and preschoolers but I feel it can inspire parents themselves, helping to normalising wakings.
Only if we start seeing children's night waking from a different perspective we will be able to live with it better in first place, overcoming the sleep-through-the-night myth, and we will be able to offer our children tools to positively deal with them.

So this book was not the magic pill that helped everyone to get more sleep of course:) 
That requires dedication, being responsive to the child's needs, reassurance, attachment, tons of routine, a good sleep hygiene, and time. 
That said, I find that visualising possibilities with a good book is always a great help.


Anna si sveglia [Hannah's Night] [2013]
by Komako Sakai
Italian edition by Babalibri
English edition by Gecko Press
Reading age: 2+
Themes: Night time, Waking up, Independence





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