Fuse #8

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Review of the Day: Beach by Elisha Cooper

Beach
By Elisha Cooper

Orchard Books (an imprint of Scholastic)
$17.99
ISBN: 9780439687850
Ages 4-8

On shelves now


Recently I’ve been shying away from reviewing picture books. Not out of any particular dislike of them, of course. I just hadn’t run across one recently that really whet my whistle. Earlier in the year I heard some librarians commenting on the various picture books of 2006 that struck them as particularly fine. One title that cropped up was Elisha Cooper’s, Beach. I’d seen the cover before and there wasn’t much there to lead me to think of it as a strong contender for awards. Pretty cover, yes. Oh, the same author as created Magic Thinks Big? Nice, nice. Big format, so that’s enjoyable. With all these thoughts sloshing about in my head, it wasn’t really until I was on my lunch break one day that I thought to go ahead and, oh I don’t know, pick it up and read it. I found myself charmed. Utterly and wholly charmed. I’m not saying “Beach” is gonna totally blow away all your conceptions of what a beach picture book constitutes. I’m just saying that alongside David Wiesner’s Flotsam and Chris Gall’s Dear Fish, there has never been a better time for shore-related picture book fare.

Open the book and we’ve a two-page spread of an empty beach, blue sky above, water stretching far into the distance. Says the book cheerily, “Away to the beach! Away to sand and salt water, to rolling dunes and pounding waves”. Turn the page and three separate images of the beach meet your eye. In each one, more and more people crop up. This section is without text. Turn the page again then. Twelve small scenarios are here, each one showing different people settling into their beachgoing routines. They’re all familiar. The people who inch into the water a miniscule centimeter at a time. Or the person who inflates a large inner tube... and then just walks into the water up to her ankles. The people frolic and the waves, “come in hills and valleys, in mountains and canyons, in craggy peaks and sweeping plains.” Meticulously Cooper captures the sounds, the tastes, and even the detritus that constitutes a day at the beach. And at the end, the three panels of the shore become six, and people start to go home. “Sand is everywhere – between toes and in bathing suits and inside ears. Inside, too, is the motion of the waves, the knowledge of a day well spent, a day to remember when the beach is far away.”

First of all, this book stands at an impressive 12.3 x 10.2 inches. So right off the bat you find that you’re dealing with an impressive beastie. Then the color scheme starts to hit you. The endpapers are all soft sea-friendly greens, pinks, blues, and brown/purples. These are the colors you find near the ocean, captured perfectly by Mr. Cooper. Now in the past I’ve always found Cooper’s people and animals to be almost too bulky to thoroughly enjoy. With Beach this problem is perfectly alleviated. It’s like Cooper went to the Chris Ware School of Tiny Humans (albeit with a child-friendly touch). The people in this book are little more than small, penciled figures. You cannot make out their individual features or digits, and it doesn’t matter a bit. Somehow, Cooper is able to suggest a whole range of emotion, movement, and energy with his tiny people. The woman who changes into her swimsuit under her towel makes all the awkward movements, arms akimbo and body twisted, you’d expect from such an attempt. The dog that dives into the waves to retrieve some driftwood splashes and cavorts in a thoroughly canine manner. This kind of miniscule study of the human (or animal) figure is deeply impressive. More importantly, it’s interesting in a way that kids will find particularly fun.

But it was Cooper’s language that surprised me the most about this book. First of all, the little situations involving the beachgoing crowd are almost Zen at times. “A woman lathers on sunscreen and reaches for the spot that cannot be reached”. Or better still, “A boy and a girl ride their parents in a crab race”. “A man wades with his baby, keeping an eye out for jellyfish”. “Seagulls pull their heads tight into their shoulders and watch everyone leave”. And then the descriptions grow broader as the illustrator starts to pull back from the individuals. We see a couple benches under a roof and the text reads, “Picnic baskets open with peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, peaches, cookies, and iced tea. Towels get sticky. After lunch, children walk past the outdoor showers to the truck that sells ice-cream sandwiches”. This book is now begging to be read aloud. And, quite frankly, you’d have to be made out of stone itself not to crave an ice-cream sandwich after the reading.

Maybe because Beach brought to mind all those wonderful Anno books I read as a child (Anno’s Journey, Anno’s USA, Anno’s Spain, and so forth) I really connected with this tale of average people doing something as basic and familiar as relaxing on the shore. This has all the makings of a personal family classic to be treasured for years to come. I don’t know if the hungry masses will be as taken in by its charms, but I personally feel that this is a wonder of a picture book. A pure unadulterated delight.

On shelves now.

Misc: Be sure to check out Elisha Cooper's website as well.

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