It is like choosing to see a movie because it has won an Oscar and that means something—except the Oscar isn’t a reliable benchmark. There are movies that have won Oscars for something or the other that no one should have to see.
I hadn’t heard of the Caldecott Medal till a few years back. Then, a friend who knows a lot about books—she makes a living out of selling them—presented my son (then two-and-a-half years old) with a book called Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.
Others before Sendak have tried to present a picture of the mind of the naughty five- or six-year-old, but Where the Wild Things Are did so with a certitude that identified the author as a master—at least when it came to children’s books.
Flotsman: The magical camera, once thrown into the sea, captures fascinating underwater creatures.
So, when I came across David Wiesner’s Flotsam, and came to know from a nice-looking paper medal stuck on the cover that the book had won the Caldecott, I picked it up without a moment’s hesitation. And boy, am I glad I did. Flotsam has no words, not one (apart from the ones on the cover and the ones inside that say copyright so and so and the like). It just has pictures. And what a story the pictures tell.
To cut to the chase, it is about a boy who finds an old-fashioned water camera on the beach, develops the film inside it, and sees pictures of fabulous and fantastic sea creatures and the underwater world. There is a picture of giant mechanical fish that move because of complex clockwork; there is a picture of an octopus family relaxing in their living room after a day of doing whatever it is octopuses do. There is a picture of a puffer fish being used as a hot air balloon by a school of fish. There is a picture of hawksbill turtles with entire miniature cities on their backs.
He also comes across a series of pictures that show a little girl holding a picture of a little boy holding a picture of another little boy holding... It turns out that each person who finds the camera takes a photograph of himself or herself holding a picture of the previous person to have had the camera… All this is told through pictures.
For those who are interested in endings, the boy takes a picture of himself and then throws the camera into the sea where a succession of creatures—some normal, some fantastic—take charge of it and ferry it across, maybe to the other side of the world, or maybe to another part of the same beach where the boy is, or maybe to another age altogether.
Without using words, Wiesner manages to convey a sense of movement and time (and möbius strip-like loops that would have even made masters of the technique, such as sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick, happy) that are the hallmark of really great graphic novels. Yet,Flotsam isn’t a graphic novel. It is a children’s book which, because it does not have words, can be read by two- and three-year-olds. Will they understand what the book is trying to say? They probably will. The mind of the child, as Sendak knows, is a wondrous thing. Cult Fiction has previously written about how there are some graphic novels meant for adults that children can and should read. This is a book meant for children (of all ages) that every follower of graphic novels must read.
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