by Carolyn Kane
People love to be near water – oceans, lakes, rivers, streams. What landlubber hasn’t dreamed of a seaside cottage or a house on a bluff with a view of Lake Michigan? Or, for those who cherish grander daydreams, a 400-year-old mansion like Manderley in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, complete with a path to the ocean and a resident ghost?
For children, water represents adventure, mystery and possible danger. Think of Ariel and Ursula the Sea Witch, Long John Silver’s band of cutthroat pirates, Tom Sawyer’s Mississippi River, Peter Pan’s island of Neverland. It’s no wonder that we celebrate water and that young children can find beautiful picture books to help them celebrate it.
The Mermaid, written and illustrated by Jan Brett, is an underwater retelling of the Goldilocks story. The tale begins when an octopus family – father, mother and baby – sets out for an early-morning swim. The baby dislikes her floppy, new hat, and for good reason: a sharp-eyed reader will discover that the baby’s “hat” is actually an unhappy stingray.
After the family has left home, a young, Asian mermaid named Kiniro floats into the house. Kiniro is beautiful but overly curious. She tastes the food, tries the furniture, accidentally breaks the baby’s chair to bits and finally falls asleep in the baby’s bed.
When the family returns and finds the house in disarray, the father octopus speaks one of the most arresting lines in picture-book lore: “Someone has been crunching on my crustaceans!”
Brett’s illustrations are colorful, quirky and highly detailed, but some readers may find these pictures so busy as to be disorienting. Little girls, however, will fall in love with the lovely and charming Kiniro.
In Ocean Meets Sky, the Fan brothers tell the story of a boy named Finn, whose grandfather once told him stories about a mystical place “where ocean meets sky.” Longing to visit this land of magic and to honor his grandfather, Finn patches together an odd little boat with such embellishments as a T-shirt for a flag, some pickets from an old fence, and a window frame without a window. Then, tired from his work, Finn lies down in his boat for a nap.
When he awakens, he finds his boat surrounded by the waters of the open sea: His voyage has begun! A giant, golden fish takes Finn to the Library Islands, where stacks of books tower over the small boat. Next he travels to an island of enormous shells and to a sea of dancing moon jellies. Is he approaching the place where sea and sky meet? The boat seems to be rising up from the water.
Like Finn’s magical ocean, lighthouses are places of mystery. To look at a lighthouse is to wonder: What does the keeper do all day? Does he get bored or lonely? What would happen if he got sick? Is the lighthouse haunted by the ghost of an old sea captain? Children who live near lighthouses can find some of their questions answered in Hello Lighthouse by Caldecott medalist Sophie Blackall.
The incidents in her book take place in some distant past when there was no telephone or radio service. The lighthouse itself differs in an important way from the ones in Door County: The keeper and his wife have no house of their own. Instead, they are squeezed into the lighthouse itself, along with their belongings and whatever they need to keep the lighthouse running.
They must be self-reliant. When the keeper becomes seriously ill, he can’t pick up a telephone to call a doctor, so his wife must nurse him on her own – while keeping the lighthouse running because lives at sea depend on her vigilance.
When she has a baby, she has no one to help her but her husband. When a boat is wrecked on the nearby rocks, only the keeper and his wife can rescue the sailors and warm them with cups of hot tea. (Unfortunately, the keeper leaves no record of interesting ghosts.)
Life in a lighthouse is clearly not for the faint of heart, but it is deeply satisfying. At the end, when the lighthouse is modernized and automated, the keeper and his little family are sad to leave.
Wisconsin writer Miranda Paul has enjoyed remarkable success with her picture books. One of them, Water Is Water, is perfect reading for children as the Celebrate Water Door County summit nears. In lilting rhythms and fetching rhymes, Paul explains how water takes many forms: drinking water, steam, clouds, fog, rain, puddles, ice, snow, mud and – best of all! – tasty apple cider.
The illustrations by Jason Chin depict two children, their friends and their black cat as they enjoy the changing seasons. They fish, swim, skate, have snowball fights and pick apples for making cider. These illustrations are arranged so that a reader gets a surprise with each turn of a page.
The book ends with a gentle reminder about the importance of conservation. A young child could find no better science lesson than the one Paul offers in Water Is Water.
Celebrate Water Door County’s year of celebration culminates in the 2019 Water Summit June 4-6. For more information, visit celebratewaterdoorcounty.org/2019summit.