Monday, July 03, 2017

Sink or Swim? How It Feels To Be A Boat by James Kwan


Ahoy, ahoy!

Raise your crooked anchor and head out to sea, as your foghorn howls and barnacles tickle your bottom.

A trim little stern-wheeled steamer sets out from the harbor, sailing into calm seas, leaving a trail of buoyant bubbles behind, while below in its belly a seemingly harmonious crew and passengers do their thing.

The pastry chef turns out fragrant tasty treats, and the octopus engineer manages the mechanisms that make the ship move. A fine brass band booms out bouncy tunes, while diapered baby Daniel marches to the beat. The Superhero is on duty, waiting for the phone to summon him to soar to action, and a doting couple have eyes only for each other.

By your furnace-heart, Bill and June keep warm, painting each other's toes.

With everyone seemingly content down below, it's smooth sailing.

But sometimes they fight.

In fact, below deck a mutiny is brewing, with everyone wanting to set course for a different port. The chef is late for a birthday party she's catering. The superhero has had an emergency call for a caped crusader. Baby Daniel stomps and scowls, while the triangle makes the case for the band's Mothers Day gig elsewhere.

The wheel spins out of control as the ship approaches rocky shoals. CRASH!

Now, with their timbers shivered and the ship's heart broken, the mutineers find themselves marooned. If they unite, can they piece their little barque back together?

It's hard to steer a course with all that's going on down below, in James Kwan's How It Feels to Be a Boat (Houghton Mifflin Clarion, 2017).

Beneath the surface of a seemingly sweet story of "the little steamboat that could," sailing merrily on with a little help from his friends, Kwan's language and artwork signal further depths of meaning within his little parable.

Kwan's illustrations are not quite the sunny primary colors of Little Toot; his palette is done with subdued, muted colors, and his characters shown in fuzzy focus, his anchor is "crooked," his bow "tears" through the seas, and his below-deck passageways are "squirmy" and "twist" through the hull, all in language which seems a bit ominous, And in truth, his passengers' selfish quarrels subsequently sink the ship--all hints that there is a lot going on below the surface of this story.

Up top on the sunny surface, it's a cheery story of cooperation, but Kwan's doughty little boat is surely also a metaphor--for a human life, for the ship of state, for the planet, perhaps? After all, "AHOY" can be warning as well as a greeting, and having all hands pulling together can make the difference between sinking and swimming. There is plenty to see and plenty to muse over in this layered story of an unusual sea voyage.

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