by Sam Juliano
Boats for Papa is one of the year’s most wrenching picture books, and is one of the year’s most pictorially beautiful. The fact that it was written and illustrated by a first timer is pretty astounding, but in the annals of children’s literature this is cause for celebration. Two years ago Aaron Becker broke into the ranks with the magnificent Caldecott Medal winning Journey, and just this year we were treated to The Bear Ate Your Sandwich, the maiden effort by Julia Sarcone-Roach, but this field is normally dominated by artists well beyond their initial engagement. Jessixa Bagley’s book is about love, loss and the inspiration to create, and during the telling of this marvelously spare story these themes intermingle to reach a common understanding that ultimately achieves a state of grace. Prior reviewers have argued whether the book will resonate more with adults or children, but having shown the book to a number of fellow teachers and friends, and having read it to five first grade classes I can vouch for its effectiveness with both groups. The kids are regularly taken by the young beaver’s resourcefulness, while adults will find it difficult not to tear up at the book’s denouement, when the truth is unveiled accidentally.
Spare storytelling is wed to soft pastel-like watercolor tapestries, a perfect artistic choice for a story set near the sea. The beaver Buckley lives in a small wooden house off the beach (one of two first-class picture books that share the same setting, with the other In a Village by the Sea set in the Far East and featuring humans) with his mother. What they have by way of furnishings is scant, but Buckley pointedly notes they have each other, announcing immediately this is a drama about relationships. After mother and child walk towards their house on the sand we see the cut in panel showing the wooden floor and walls with a simple furnace/stove a window with held curtains, wall pictures, table and sink. Buckley spends his time looking for things at the beach, and what is noticeable in the first double page spread are broken tree branches in abundance. The term “busy as a beaver” couldn’t be more apt, as Buckley works with hands meticulously, constructing boats out of all the driftwood he can handle.
The first time we hear of someone whom the young beaver wants to make something for is at meal time when Buckley shows his mother the boat he has made for Papa. As mom spreads one side of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich -with some carrot sticks nearby- Buckley is clutching the kind of miniature boat you’d see in the ship-in-a-bottle configurations seen in specialty stores or homes. One of the most joyous spreads in what is predominantly a melancholic work is the one where mom in a yellow dress with cap sits on a blanket set on the beach where she and Buckley sporting a gold crown, can enjoy a picnic for his birthday. His gift was a paint palette for him to use for his boat. As the sun sets they walk along the sea where the young beaver can set his newest boat into the water, where he determines if it doesn’t come back he’ll know he got it.
At bedtime Buckley asks his mother if he can send off more boats to Papa, and mom tells him that Papa would really like that. First readers of the book are given a clue in a sublime nocturnal panel with dark blue and moon, as Mama walks out to the beach after Buckley has fallen asleep. One tour de force of illustration is a double page spread bathed in light blue under a sky only a shade darker, when the two beavers watch Buckley’s latest creation, a handsome boast with colored streamers and a note that reads “For Papa – Love Buckley.” It is followed by another superlative wood-paneled extended spread showing a wall with pictures of all the boats Buckley was constructing, with each bettering the last one. We see Buckley working hard on a splendid boat specimen, applying blue paint around the starboard windows, while learning that Buckley always takes “extra care to make those the most beautiful of all.”
On Buckley’s next birthday they played the role of pirates, with mama wearing a blue and white pirate’s cap, and a cake shaped like a boat sitting on a serving board. When sunset arrives they again attend to their boat sending routine, but Buckley realizes he must dash back to the house to get some paper to write his note to Papa. It is then he discovers that all the boats he sent to Papa were collected by his mother in her desk. Buckley sat and reflected, knowing now that none of the boats have ever reached papa and that his mom had retrieved them. This beaver shaped vignette that shows Buckley making the book’s most vital realization includes a wall full of pictures, some with his father, whom we know now has passed away. The tapestry is suffused with aching remembrance, beautifully color coordinated and lovingly mounted. Back at the beach Buckley slips his note into the boat and it is set adrift. They exchange affections at bedtime, telling each other how much they mean, at which point Mama returns to the beach to claim the latest ruse, but after brushing away the sand she reads the note: “For Mama, Love Buckley.”
While I seriously doubt Boats for Papa was written as a story about a dead parent, it does explore the impact of that loss, and the delicate matter of concealment that must be maintained not only to avert the grief it would precipitate, but to parlay false belief into something more tangible, something lasting, which as mentioned early is the epiphany of grace. We all know Buckley will be a success in his life. Few children’s books handle this subject with as much delicacy and subtlety. We saw something similar with City Dog Country Frog by Mo Willems and Jon J. Muth, but much like in Charlotte’s Web the story ended with resurrection. At the end of Boats for Papa, the reader will find it impossible not to cry, but at the same time the living relationship is the sturdiest example of how unspoken but understood realization of what has really happened will bring a defining closure to a mystery, and a special sense of dignity and a love deeper than life itself.
Boats for Papa is a staggering masterpiece. The shattering story is matched by some of the most delicately applied and exquisite art of this or any year. The cover is a bleeding burst of impressionism and the end papers are respectively attuned to what is happening at the beginning and ending of the book. The latter presentation of all the completed boats mounted on the wall is magisterial. The Caldecott Committee is no doubt returning to this book over and over as well they should be.
Note: This is the thirty-first review in the 2015 Caldecott Contender series that will be published at this site over the coming months, up until the January 11th scheduled awards date. The books that will be examined are not necessarily ones that are bonafide contenders in the eyes of the voting committee, but rather the ones this writer feels should be. The order they will be presented is arbitrary as some of my absolute favorites will be presented near the end.