By Leonard S. Marcus – November 7, 2017.
While some sea stories are mainly good for a pirate-y thrill, others take young readers a bit deeper. The vast scope and power of the high seas makes the world’s oceans a dramatic setting for stories for those just getting their sea-legs as thoughtful, feeling, capable humans. Four new picture books leave dry land behind to reflect on the rewards and perils of friendship, empathy, courage and more.
The stakes are high in Mordicai Gerstein’s “The Boy and The Whale,” a tautly constructed narrative about a fisherman’s son who wishes to free a whale from the net his father depends on for his livelihood. As the story unfolds, Gerstein, winner of the 2004 Caldecott Medal for “The Man Who Walked Between the Towers,” leaves readers in suspense as to whether the whale can in fact be saved, whether the task is too much for a child, and whether sparing an animal’s life is worth risking the family’s economic survival. In the moral logic of the tale, pragmatic considerations cannot be ignored, but empathy for the suffering takes precedence. Gerstein cinches the case in a scene in which the boy, a nimble diver, comes eye to eye with the captive creature and decides that along with the whale’s life his own humanity hangs in the balance.
Gerstein draws in a fluid, unfussy pen-line with overlays of watercolor that wash each scene in a warmly articulated light. He neither names his characters nor identifies their ethnic or national background, wisely so in a story whose underlying dilemma might present itself—whale or no whale—to anyone anywhere.
Readers who like their sea sagas with a splash of humor may prefer “The Only Fish in the Sea.” When a cartoonish-ly crabby girl named Little Amy Scott hurls an unwanted goldfish from a pier, two indignant friends lay plans for a rescue mission. It is this story’s attractive premise—as it is that of children’s own make-believe fantasies—that feats of heroism as grand as the one Sadie and Sherman contemplate are well within their grasp. Sure enough, clever Sadie, with easy-going Sherman at her side, knows exactly how to fit out a longboat, assemble a crew of smartly attired sailor-chimps, and make for open waters.
As the details of their helter-skelter adventure unspool in Matthew Cordell’s frizzy, pert, deadpan drawings, Philip C. Stead, whose tonally adroit knack for comedic dialog recalls Charles Schulz’s, lets readers eavesdrop on snippets of the onboard conversation. When sweet, uncomplicated Sherman asks what’s next for the goldfish—not if but when they succeed in finding him—Sadie responds by waxing eloquent on the proper care and feeding of those we love. She ends with a few choice words about Little Amy Scott, the cause of all their troubles, and let’s just say: no happy-birthday wishes for her.
“The Antlered Ship” aims for a dreamier, artier style of sea-faring fantasy. It features a splendid age-of-sail tall ship sporting an impressive antler-themed prow, and a surreal all-animal crew captained by a doe named Sylvia. In port, other creatures sign on as crewmembers, including some venturesome pigeons and a philosopher fox named Marco who is seeking answers to life’s big questions, or rather to pretty big ones like, “Why don’t trees ever talk?” and “Why is water so wet?” Oh dear—or perhaps, oh deer! As the ship and narrative drift in tandem, readers can only pray that Marco will not redirect his musings to more mundane matters, such as the odds of enjoying a pigeon repast.
The illustrations by the brothers Terry and Eric Fan are breathtakingly good. The Fans have an exquisite command of atmosphere and the ability as draftsmen to conjure up a fully realized world—even when, as here, they’re starting from a generically written prose text that loses its way in the intriguing scenario it first set in motion.
More down to earth is “Robinson,” a dream adventure propelled by a schoolchild’s decision to attend a costume party dressed as his favorite storybook hero, Robinson Crusoe. Things go badly wrong when young Peter’s schoolmates mercilessly mock the elaborate faux-fur costume his mother prepared for him. Surely it would have been better to go in standard-issue pirate gear, as Peter knew the others were all planning to do. Or not: with a gentle nudge from his mother, he opted instead to make a more personal statement, and is repaid for his efforts with a jolt of group rejection that leaves him feeling as alone as any shipwrecked traveler on a desert island.
What began as a parent’s well-meaning intervention in her child’s social affairs morphs for Peter into a developmental flash point. Turning feverish, the shaken boy escapes into a dream that in some respects mimics Crusoe’s island exile (although happily not the part about Friday!). In this dream, Peter forages for food, makes his own clothing and shelter, and keeps an eye out for pesky pirates. Readers can see that on awakening Peter is more his own person than before, and is ready to re-connect on his own terms with school chums who, as children do, have also moved on and are keen for his company.
Peter Sís, who grew up in Soviet-Bloc Czechoslovakia and has lived in the United States since 1982, has made a specialty of chronicling the lives of maverick outsiders from Galileo to Darwin. He first told bits and pieces of his own coming-of-age story in “The Wall,” but the autobiographical “Robinson” is a more intimate, child’s-eye view of a schoolboy’s struggles to navigate the treacherous crosscurrents of self and society. It is hard not to feel for this child.
In his illustrations for “Robinson,” Sís reprises long-time favorite graphic maneuvers—arresting bird’s eye perspectives, imaginary landscapes that double as maps of themselves—while also showing a new interest in color that mirrors the story’s heightened emotional urgency. Growing up, these evocative images imply, can feel a lot like being lost at sea, but the imagination is a good map to steer by.