Beach babble on

A selection of books immerses kids in a wetter, wavier world

By Polly Shulman
Published July 14, 1998 9:28AM (EDT)

The purpose of summer, it can be argued, is the beach. But what is the purpose of the beach? In attempting to answer this question, three schools of thought dominate. For oceanists, the beach exists primarily as a point of entry to a wetter, wavier world. For recliners, whether umbrella-and-sunblock adherents or roasters, it's an excuse to lie down with a paperback. And for sandistas, the purpose of the beach is, well, the beach.

Clearly, most children fall into the first and third categories, and a good thing, too: With the possible exception of bath toys printed on plastic, few children's books are designed to withstand seaside use. Kids' beach books are less for reading at the beach than for reading about it. Such stories amplify, evoke or draw strength from their readers' passion for sand and sea.

Rained out? Spread the towels on the carpet, blow up the inner tube and read "Beach Play" with your 4-year-old. Marsha Hayles and Hideko Takahashi create a companionable beach, full of puppies and Frisbees, radios and striped umbrellas (but, oddly, no shells). Man-made pleasures have their place here -- the round-headed heroine visits the swing set and the ice-cream stand as well as the sea. Takahashi's cartoony paintings borrow their curved horizons and foreshortening from a fish-eye lens. The pictures swoop down from overhead or sweep upward from beneath, creating a swinging visual rhythm, which the text reinforces with its repeating gerunds: "Smacking Packing Sandy Stacking. Splashing Dashing Big wave crashing." By the time the sunset pinkens the sand, heroine and reader will be ready for a snooze in the back seat.

A more meditative book for sand fans, with fewer inflatable sharks, is Kimberley Knutson's onomatopoeic "Beach Babble." Three children, gracefully constructed from paper cutouts, "plip plip plip through the shallow water" and "crouch in the cracks, listening to the waves ulk-ulking between the rocks." The children's gestures are lively and natural, not stiff as you might expect from collage illustrations, and some of the patterned papers (the towels and bathing suits) add charm, like the made-up words. Other collage-driven choices work less well: the blue marbled paper makes a flat ocean that looks pasted on, because the pattern doesn't condense toward the horizon like real waves. And small children may stare at some of the pictures for quite a while wondering why the girls are missing their feet. (Of course, small children may stare at their own legs just as long, wondering why their buried feet seem to have vanished.) Knutson creates a sense of adventurous autonomy for her three beach goers by keeping the grown-ups out of the frame.

For children who are drawn more to the thrills and dangers of the high sea than to safer, sandier pleasures, there's always "Moby Dick." True, Herman Melville's magnum opus may be a bit too magnum for the average 8-year-old, but, surprisingly, Allan Drummond's 30-page adaptation preserves many qualities of the original. The watercolor illustrations, painted in a naive style evoking that of self-taught 19th century artists, has an elaborate, stiff expressiveness something like Melville's prose. As in the longer version, Captain Ahab obsesses darkly in his cabin while the Pequod picks its way past icebergs and swelters through the tropics. The second mate kills a whale (not Moby Dick, whom Ahab is chasing, just an anonymous sperm whale), which we watch being dismantled amid red ink. A monstrous squid puts in an appearance; the harpooner Queequeg builds himself a coffin. And all the while, the hapless crew is swept along like driftwood in the tide of Ahab's mythic quest for revenge.

Sea lovers past the picture-book age but still too young for Patrick O'Brian and Melville are ready for Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island" and its ilk: tales of loyalty and greed, of graceful sailing ships and desert islands, of rum, hurricanes, mutiny, naval battles, spectral lanterns, cat-o'-nine-tails and so on. There may be only one "Treasure Island," but fortunately it has plenty of ilk. For example, the forerunner to O'Brian's books, C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower series, has recently been reissued. The series, which delighted my father in his boyhood, follows the fortunes of a British naval man from his maiden voyage as a midshipman, or child officer, through promotions and the triumphs of the Napoleonic wars. In other children's classics, such as Scott O'Dell's "The Island of the Blue Dolphin" (about a pair of Native American children marooned on an island) and Elizabeth George Speare's "The Witch of Blackbird Pond" (about an orphaned English teenager sent to Puritan Massachusetts), the ocean imprisons the heroes but also nourishes them and ultimately gives them their freedom.

One excellent recent addition to the genre, Iain Lawrence's sinister young-adult novel "The Wreckers," was consciously modeled on "Treasure Island." This sea tale is set almost entirely on land, though rarely out of earshot of the breakers. John, the 14-year-old narrator, washes ashore at the beginning of Chapter 2, after his father's ship mistakes deadly rocks for a harbor in Chapter 1. "I was nestled in a mass of bull kelp, the thick cords slick and wet against my bare arms. And when I shifted, they went slithering over my skin like giant eels." He sees men moving along the beach, bending over the sailors who have washed up near him. He's about to call out when he realizes that they aren't trying to revive the sailors -- they're holding them under the water.

When a ship wrecked in mid-19th century England, we later learn, its contents belonged to whoever found them -- as long as no one from the ship reached shore alive. Clearly, John is in trouble. Plenty of richly laden ships sail by that tricky coast of Cornwall, and whenever one is sighted, entire villages line the cliffs, hoping and waiting. But sometimes the villagers take a more active role in the disasters, luring ships onto shoals at night with false beacons.

Lawrence spins an elaborate plot of blackmail, murder and treasure. The twists begin almost at once, so it's hard to describe any of it without spoiling surprise upon horrible surprise. Trapped in a town where every citizen -- from the pastor to the village madwoman -- shares a motive to kill him, John is at a loss for someone to trust. He can't leave because he believes his father is still alive, being held for ransom in some dark cave or cellar.

Like Stevenson's, many of Lawrence's characters are missing parts of their bodies. The effect is unsettling yet sometimes comical, as when a tongueless illiterate tries in vain to give John a vital message. In the creepiest of several chases, John scrambles over rooftops with a legless man hot on his heels. Even the food is scary: "Finally, Mary came from the kitchen with a thing so awful I could hardly bear to look. It was a pie, with a crust as smooth and brown as a sandy beach. But through it poked the heads of fish, thrusting up as though she'd baked them alive as they floundered for air. Their big cooked eyes bulged toward the ceiling." Lawrence's dialogue and vivid images make "The Wreckers" a good book to read aloud. But you may want to wait for a day when the sun is shining brightly on smooth, harmless-looking water with no breakers in sight.

Polly Shulman

Polly Shulman edits news articles for the journal Science.

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