by Sam Juliano
The following is a transcript of a student-teacher interview conducted at the beginning of December in an undergraduate class in children’s literature taught by Dr. Katherine Smith at Jersey City State University. The interview was the final stage of an assignment each class member was required to complete. The specifications required that each student sponsor a picture book that they will propose for the Caldecott Medal, due to be announced in late January of 2017. The student, Kaitlyn Mercado chose The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles by Michelle Cuevas with illustrations by Erin E. Stead. (transcript begins)
Professor Smith: Hello Kaitlyn! (Kaitlyn responds in kind) Please hold up and identify your choice.
Kaitlyn Mercado: Professor, my book is The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles, published by Dial, written by Michele Cuevas, with the illustrations by Erin E. Stead.
Professor Smith: Thank you Kaitlyn. Can you talk a little about why you chose this title?
Kaitlyn Mercado: Professor, I am a big fan of the Steads, Phillip C. and his wife Erin E. I was thrilled when their first book together, A Sick Day for Amos McGee was awarded the Caldecott Medal six years ago. The woodblock and pencil work in that book was so precise and exquisite. Amos is an irresistible character in his ill fitting clothes, but his friendship with the animals under his watch is so genuine. The book has elements of Goodnight Moon and a much older 1965 Caldecott Medal winner called May I Bring A Friend? Philip is both an author and illustrator, but Erin only illustrates. Eric sometimes does the art for other authors. I really love And Then It’s Spring, which she illustrated for Julie Fogliano. Her art is so sumptuous. This past year was huge for the couple. In addition to this book for Erin, Philip was the sole creator of two other great ones, Ideas Are All Around and Samson in the Snow. I pretty much fell in love with The Uncorker… as soon as I saw the dust jacket cover.
Professor Smith: Kaitlyn, you spoke about the art. What are the prime aspects of Erin’s work in The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles that you’d say define her style? Is this book another woodblock and pencil work?
Kaitlyn Mercado: Professor, this book is indeed another woodblock effort, but on the copyright page it is stated that oil pastels is also part of this mix. When you look at Uncorker and other books from Erin it is largely about the texture and color. Because The Uncorker showcases settings that are impacted greatly by the weather – the book is set near the ocean where fog and mist intrude regularly – texture plays even a more pronounced role in this particular book. You could practically taste the salt just looking at some of the paintings.
Professor Smith: I see Kaitlyn. So you’d conclude then that the setting of this book is alluring to you?
Kaitlyn Mercado: I do. The Uncorker lives in a house set on a modest cliff overlooking the the bay. Only one tree is there for shade. On the other side is a quaint little lighthouse. As leaves swing in the air on the opening page the Uncorker keeps a sharp eye for bottles that were sent on with the hope that someone would see and claim them, and then deliver them to the person the message was intended for. I tend to like a lot of private time and I could relate to the Uncorker, though I don’t envy him for the demands of his job. You’d almost think he’s trying to find a needle in a haystack. But he’s very good at his job, and his eyes are pealed for that ‘glint of glass.’
Professor Smith: Before you discuss the illustrations and the ones you may like most, can you talk a bit about the author’s writing? You said her name was Michelle Cuevas, I think.
Kaitlyn Mercado: That’s right. Actually I rather like her writing quite a bit. Her use of metaphors resulted in some lovely descriptive language, especially in the opening section that equates the Uncorker’s travel to deliver messages to the seasons. For example on a long journey “he felt loneliness as sharp as fish scales,” or when the messages were very old, crunchy, like leaves in the fall. And the winter panel was touchingly melancholic when the author describes a message about a death as “Sometimes the messages were written by a quill dipped in sadness.” And when the messages were prospectively joyful, perhaps monetary gain – “a letter can hold the treasure of a clam-hugged pearl.” At the end the author writes: “The Uncorker’s heart was a glass vessel filled to the brim.”
Professor Smith: Perhaps you could tell the story in a few words?
Kaitlyn Mercado: Yes of course. The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles performs a vital service transporting notes that are sent by others who set the bottles containing then in the water. The Uncorker delivers all he finds, but always laments that none are ever sent his way. I remember the author saying that “he stank of seaweed and salt and fisherman’s feet” and that nobody would ever want to sent him a message. But that day finally came and he received a peculiar bottle with a message about a party being thrown at the seashore the following night when the tide came in. He decided to visit some of the locals to ask if they recognized the print. The cake maker, the candy shop owner, a seagull, a sailor and a one-man band all told him the same thing – they didn’t have any idea whose writing it belonged to. The Uncorker thought about the situation and decided the next day to head to the seashore and apologize to the writer of the note. He brought seashells as he didn’t want to be rude. When it arrived he couldn’t believe his eyes. All those he had approached were now there wearing party hats and carrying various items including musical instruments. The Uncorker dances near the beach as the insistence of the girl in green. Though it was most obvious that he was sent the bottle by his friends who wished to see him have fun for once, he still states at the end that he must deliver the bottle.
Professor Smith: And the art? Your favorite illustrations?
Kaitlyn Mercado: The art is intoxicating, and quite sublime. The illustrations remind me of a past Caldecott Medal winner, Sam, Bangs and Moonshine, which is also set along the water where the main character’s father is a fisherman, and also Thy Friend Obadiah, a Caldecott Honor book about a Puritan boy and his friendship with a seagull set dockside in Massachusetts. But Stead’s textures are impressionistic and cloth-like and the use of wooly greens and browns are both extraordinary beautiful and laced with a profound sadness and sense of solitude. Throughout The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles there is a mysterious undercurrent. This feeling is enhanced by the deep textures and the fog enshrouded color mixing. Even at the end with the celebrating there is a sense of regret in this elegiac book. Ms. Stead always opts for a spare design, and this I feel was the perfect choice to express Ms. Cuevas’ theme.
Professor Smith: Kaitlyn, would you care to take a short break?
Kaitlyn Mercado: Thank you Professor, but I’m good.
Professor Smith: Your favorite illustrations?
Kaitlyn Mercado: I pretty much love just about every one, but a few are really spectacular. The star lit night canvas is breathtaking. (reads text:) The Uncorker felt very low. This was the first time he’d been unable to deliver a message. The line drawings of the house and tree and the way brown is economically blended in to give this majestic composition an almost meditative essence. An earlier (similar) tapestry of the Uncorker on the beach with animals is seemingly set at dawn and it exerts the same alluring tone, with a more concentrated orange-brown mix. The two panels of the musicians greeting on the beach are also magnificent, but it almost seems like a revere. There is a surreal element too in the ghostly manner they are drawn. Those earlier oval seasonal illustrations are also extraordinary and they help to forge a book where setting overwhelms every plot element.
Professor Smith: Kaitlyn, since you’ve established some parallels top other picture books I wanted to ask you if there are any film directors whose work you can consider in assessing the book. Maybe one or a few that you can establish either a thematic or visual connection? I know you are a film major with a literature minor, so you might be interested in making some connection.
Kaitlyn Mercado: Professor, the jovial beach tapestries with the musicians and welcoming adornments with that surreal element is all Fellini, and that profound melancholic undercurrent and seashore setting is quintessential Bergman. The loneliness and solitude is Antonioni.
Professor Smith: Kaitlyn, are there any clues as to what time period the book was set in? And perhaps the geographical location?
Kaitlyn Mercado: Professor, there was one very persuasive clue earlier on in an illustration that depicted a woman who had received one of the Uncorker’s messages. She was listening to a record on one of those old-fashioned phonographs that were used around the 1920’s. The entire practice of delivering ocean bottle messages has to even pre-date that period. Bicycles were all the rage too, but that doesn’t really indicate a time period. While it could well be implied that the book was set in the Pacific Northwest, I think it is likely Cuevas was thinking of Massachusetts and the Cape Cod region. But that is only a guess on my part. Most would no doubt say the same.
Professor Smith: Is there anything special about the cover or end papers worth mentioning?
Kaitlyn Mercado: The end papers are dark green, a perfect matching choice for most of the most exquisite canvases inside. The inside cover is an engraving of the Uncorker looking outside his window at the water, with his cat near his feet. Lovely. But that fantastic dust jacket which is a near replication of one of the inside drawings is the real looker.
Professor Smith: Thank you so much Kaitlyn. You have me wanting to purchase my own copy of the book! Enjoy your lunch. I can tell you this. I’ll be ordering New England clam chowder in the school cafeteria today!
Kaithyn Mercado: (laughs) Me too Professor!
Note: This is the forty-ninth entry in the ongoing 2016 Caldecott Medal Contender series. The series does not purport to predict what the committee will choose, rather it attempts to gauge what the writer feels should be in the running. In most instances the books that are featured in the series have been touted as contenders in various online round-ups, but for the ones that are not, the inclusions are a humble plea to the committee for consideration. It is anticipated the series will include in the neighborhood of around 50 titles; the order which they are being presented in is arbitrary, as every book in this series is a contender. Some of my top favorites of the lot will be done near the end. The awards will be announced on January 23rd, hence the reviews will continue till two from the days before that date.