Review of the Day: Flotsam
I suppose that there must be some people in world for whom the name “David Wiesner” means nothing. I can’t fathom what this kind of an existence must be like. I suppose it would be the literary equivalent of not knowing what chocolate was. Or snow. The minute the new Wiesner book comes out I, like hundreds of thousands of others like me, rush out to purchase it for friends, relatives, and passing acquaintances I met once in the grocery store. Little wonder that the man has won two Caldecott Medals AND two Caldecott Honors. Now one of those numbers is about to change since Wiesner has produced his most ambitious creation to date. Wordless (as always) and more intense than his light-hearted “Tuesday” and “Sector 7” ever were, this is a book overflowing in deep-water mysteries and delights.
A scientifically minded young man is closely examining the various critters and crabs he finds washed up along the beachshore when he’s suddenly doused in a wave. When he emerges he’s sitting on the sand with an old-fashioned camera beside him. On its front are the words, “Melville underwater camera”. Intrigued, the boy plucks out the film and takes it to a one hour photo store. The pictures he get back, however, are nothing a person could imagine. Mechanical fish swimming with real ones, hot-air pufferfish, entire civilizations living on the backs of gigantic starfish... and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The last photo, however, is the most interesting of them all. In it, a girl holds a picture of a boy holding a picture of a boy, holding a picture of a girl, and so on. Our boy gets out his magnifying glass and sees even more pictures of kids holding pictures of kids. And when he gets out his microscope he can see all the way back to the very first picture in the batch ever taken. When last we see of our hero he has taken a picture of himself holding the last photo with the Melville camera. Then he tosses it into the sea, where we see it acting out a couple of adventures until the last picture in the book. A girl on a tropical beach reaches for the camera, half-buried in the sand.
That was less of a summary and more a retelling of the entire book, I know. I have a hard time with encapsulation when I find myself so deeply in love with a picture book. And now I’m having a very hard time figuring out what to coo over first. Let’s talk details. Wiesner may well be the king of them. Some people see his work as a colorful version of Chris Van Allsburg. I can see where these people are coming from, but Van Allsburg is far more interested in tone and mood than in meticulously researched, thought through details. Consider what Wiesner has accomplished with, “Flotsam”. First of all, there isn’t a single thing that happens in this book that feels out of place or out of the blue. For example, at the end of this story our hero takes a picture of himself with the picture of the multiple kids. So where did he get the film? Well, if you track back to when he was getting the film developed, you see him purchasing some 120 color film (which is Kodak yellow, though Wiesner’s too classy to put in any product placement). Another remarkable detail? Look at all the pictures of the children. As they go back in time their hair and clothing styles change accordingly. You can see that the child from the 1980s is holding a picture of a child from the 1970s. Then, after a while, we’re in the 50s, the 40s, the 30s, and finally we’re at the turn of the century. The film is black and white by this point, but when you consider what kind of camera we’re dealing with that makes perfect sense. Wiesner even beveled the edges of the 1950s picture.
So that’s the realistic part of the book (so to speak). The crazy underwater stuff is interesting in an entirely different way. Who thinks up gigantic starfish with islands on their heads? Or tiny aliens vacationing alongside some somewhat weirded-out seahorses? It’s here that Wiesner really lets himself go all out. Kids who’ve read his previous books may also enjoy seeing his collection of flotsam items on the title pages. The black and white pig may also look especially familiar to them...
Great story. Great illustrations. Great great book. If the storytelling style (almost comic-like in its use of panels and divisions) doesn’t get you then the outright well-thought out wonderfulness of it all will. An amazing addition to any collection. Your kids will never look at the sea the same way again.
On shelves September 4th.