A Child’s Picture Book: Flotsam

Children’s picture books are like poetry. The author of a novel has hundreds of pages, thousands of words, to develop ideas and plot. The picture book author has only a few words to get ideas put into a form that a small child–or an adult–can grasp. And then couple that with the art of the illustrations!

Working in a children’s library for 12 years was enchanting. Hard work and enchanting. Not only did these works of art pass through my hands–literally hundreds of them daily–but I had the joy of watching children’s reactions to them.

One of my favorites was a Caldecott Medal winner in 2007 (the award for art design) by David Wiesner, Flotsam (New York: Clarion Books, 2006). I seriously misjudged it. The story is told only in illustrations–no words. A boy finds an old-fashioned box camera on the beach. When he develops the photos, he sees pictures of an underwater fantasy. The bright colors, imaginative creatures and

Cover of "Flotsam (Caldecott Medal Book)&...

Cover of Flotsam (Caldecott Medal Book)

settings are amazing. The final camera photo, however, is of a child who is holding a photo of another child, who is holding a photo of another child, etc., etc. The children are from varied ethnic and geographic backgrounds and different time periods. He takes a picture of himself holding this photo and then throws the camera back into the ocean. The final scenes in the book show another child finding it.

As I processed the book when it first came into our library, I had to look through it several times to try to understand the concepts. Even though I loved it, I couldn’t imagine children understanding this idea, and I thought the author had miscalculated the abilities of his audience. Perhaps older children could understand it–but they wouldn’t slow down for a picture book without words.

I was amazed to see it checked out over and over by young students. It was one of those books that never “cooled off,” still warm as I checked it out to another youngster. I think they were grabbed by the beautiful and zany illustrations, but I also believe that children are generally a lot smarter than we think they are.

Other people look at technology as a thermometer of how much our lives have changed over the past century. I look at the very few books written for children then compared to the wide range of titles available now. Step into any bookstore and peruse their children’s picture book section. Good for the soul!

By the Skin of the Cow

I had an encounter with a cow on our beach one summer. Well, part of a cow.

In my first piece I wrote about our best beachcombing finds–the toy canoe, the new smelting net, the message in the bottle. Lovely finds. But we beachcombers don’t always find treasures.

A meat market operated in our neighborhood for many years, about the length of a block from our house. It was located close to the county road. On the other side of the road, the brushy bank led down to the beach.

The market was managed by a number of different owners over the years, and most of them ran absolutely spotless operations. One year, however, it was less than spotless. We walkers would have to step through run-off water that ran down from the building and across the road and into the bay. I felt like I was walking through blood, though it was likely only water from their cleaning. It often smelled.

The meat market was “grandfathered in.” It had been there as long as most neighbors could remember. This was before anyone was seriously concerned about what was draining into Puget Sound bays, certainly not one little business. I remember holding my breath as I walked by, and I muttered about it. I wondered what agency would listen to my complaints.

One sunny afternoon my young sons, perhaps four and six-years-old, and I were on the beach when we spotted a huge brown pile of something on the beach–not far from the meat market. When we went over to investigate, we discovered it was a cowhide. I was furious. All the anger I’d held in about the bad smells and less than pristine run-off water spilled over.

“Come on, boys, let’s go.” I grabbed one end of the heavy, water-logged, smelly cowhide and started dragging it toward the bank.

“Where are we going?” asked six-year-old Nat. Both boys’ eyes were wide.

“We’re taking this back to where it belongs.” I dragged it up the bank and down the road toward the meat market. Neither of the boys said anything that whole walk. I was seething.

I could see a customer at the counter through the front window as we approached, but I dragged the hide up the steps and left it on the top step. Then I opened the door and said, “I think this belongs to you.”

I turned and left, the boys behind me. The two men were as wide-eyed as my sons had been. They didn’t say anything.

I have often wished since that experience that I could take similar actions to more serious pollution–direct, simple, and very effective. No shouting. No accusations. Gone are the days when I could have smeared smelly toxins on the front steps of corporate headquarters. Security measures prevent that.

Now, in hindsight, of course, I realize that cowhide likely washed in from another source–perhaps from the same place the buoyant cow carcass originated last month. My self-righteous anger may have been misguided. On the other hand, had they been keeping a clean operation, I would still perhaps have delivered it there, but I would have asked if they had a way of disposing of it.

No more talk of cows in salt water. I promise. They’ve all sunk. We’ve laid them to rest. Gone to their watery graves. Crab feed.

# # #

Several of you have mentioned the debris about to hit the West Coast from the Japanese tsunami of a year ago. We will all be watching that news. A friend told me yesterday that she’d found two large light bulbs on First Beach at LaPush about a month ago, about the size of softballs. One is red, the other is clear. The metal parts on the bottom are corroded and broken. Japanese (or Asian) writing is on the top of each, close to where the voltage/wattage information is printed. She has placed them in her stunning garden.

And Cousin Alice asked if I’d read Moby-Duck by Donovan Hohn. I love the sub-title: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them.I haven’t read it, but just picked it up from the library. The book jacket calls it “a compulsively readable narrative of whimsy and curiosity.”

Moby Duck : The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys...

Moby Duck : The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them (Photo credit: DI Library)

By sheer coincidence, my book group this month is reading Flotsametrics and the Floating World: How One Man’s Obsession with Runaway Sneakers and Rubber Ducks Revolutionaized Ocean Scienceby Curtis Ebbesmeyer and Eric Scigliano.

Cover of "Flotsametrics and the Floating ...

Cover via Amazon

Sinking the Body

Hey diddle diddle
The cat and the fiddle
The cow jumped….into the bay.

Well, more likely was pushed. Or dragged. Or maybe dumped. But whoever was trying to get rid of this corpse forgot to attach the cement weights, and this poor brown and white cow drifted around the Port of Kingston, Washington, a couple weeks ago, and washed up on a beach–within sight of the Kingston ferry landing.

This is not the kind of treasure you want to find when you’re beachcombing. And especially not the kind of debris the Port of Kingston wanted floating around its marinas. When it didn’t float away on the high tide as they hoped it would, port workers dragged it back into the water and tied a buoy to it, hoping to prevent boats from running into it and also to prevent it from drifting back onto the beach.

The cow was news in several area newspapers, including front page news in our North Kitsap Herald with one article’s title, “Surf and Turf…..” According to the newspaper report, the harbormaster had conferred with about eight different agencies, but no one was jumping at the chance to lay this body to rest.

Early efforts included shooting the cow by county deputies who hoped the water would fill the holes and sink it. It remained partially visible. In the end, port employees themselves sank the cow by using chain and cinder blocks.

A source of contamination of Puget Sound, or the Salish Sea, is animal waste run-off from farms. But this is apparently not the case of an animal carcass. The harbormaster predicted the cow would be a feast for many crabs all summer.

In all fairness, the cow may not have been pushed or dragged or even dumped by a perpetrator. Perhaps it was just the victim of an accidental drowning. Or maybe a miscalculation in attempting to jump over the moon.