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How It Feels to Be a Boat

The cover of How It Feels to Be a Boat, written and illustrated by James Kwan, promises a sailing adventure. There’s music in the air and a boat with whimsical passengers in high spirits. On the back cover, baby yellow elephants on rocks watch the boat chug along. The boat is right at the edge of the cover, just about to sail into the next page, effectively inviting you into the book to join the adventure.

When you open the book, you see solid pink endpapers, ones that are the exact same color as the boat’s furnace-heart. This is apt, as How It Feels to Be a Boat is a story with a lot of heart.

The visual narrative begins with a round white frame, directing attention to the boat in its center. You, as the reader, discover that you are that boat. The following spreads are panoramic views of you heading out to sea. Then the spreads zoom in, revealing the passengers in your belly-rooms: the Chef and her delicious treats, the anthropomorphic Big Brass Band and its conductor, baby prince Daniel and his pony, the Octopus and his gadgets, the Superhero, and Bill and June. All of the passengers are rendered small and rounded, making them look welcoming and making you feel very comfortable being part of their sailing adventure.

The spreads are a mix of panoramic views of the boat sailing and close-ups of the boat, the latter showing what is happening in the deep belly-rooms and how that might affect the sailing (and vice versa). There is also a mix of full-page illustrations and smaller illustrations in round white frames. These smaller ones focus on the boat, which strengthens the boat’s connection with you, the reader. Some pages have text; some pages are wordless. Through it all, there is movement, movement, movement: the boat pushing through the sea.

The most striking spreads showcase all of the passengers on deck, fighting over where to go next. They are the only lull in the movement of the visual narrative. All of the passengers are looking and pointing in different directions. Not even the individual instruments in the Big Brass Band are looking in the same direction. As a result you, the reader, can’t focus. You don’t know where to look or where to go either. Remember that you are also the boat, so all this sudden confusion about direction naturally causes you to CRASH.

(Curiously, the weather is always perfect and the sea is mostly smooth. It’s this storm amongst its passengers that breaks the heart and body of the boat.)

The visual narrative draws to a close with the passengers working together to rebuild the boat – you – piece by crooked piece. Sometimes your passengers make you tremble, but right now they are singing and moving together to rebuild you. Now you are a crooked boat, but you are strong and you are sailing once again.

It’s this compelling forward movement in the visual narrative that’s a significant achievement and makes How It Feels to Be a Boat “distinguished” and worthy of Caldecott consideration. The horizontal orientation of the illustrations draws your eyes across the page. The boat constantly moves from one end of a spread to the other, and from one page to the next. As the boat is driven forward by its furnace-heart, even pushing through an internal storm, you are driven to turn the pages. It’s such an inspiring metaphor: life goes on. Despite a storm, the boat sails on. You sail on.

You are a strong boat. Ahoy, ahoy!

Read the Horn Book Magazine review of How It Feels to Be a Boat.

Tarie Sabido About Tarie Sabido

Tarie Sabido is the Chair of the Philippine Board on Books for Young People and co-founder of the Filipino ReaderCon. She blogs about Asian children's and young adult books at Asia in the Heart, World on the Mind (http://asiaintheheart.blogspot.com).

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Comments

  1. “The spreads are a mix of panoramic views of the boat sailing and close-ups of the boat, the latter showing what is happening in the deep belly-rooms and how that might affect the sailing (and vice versa). There is also a mix of full-page illustrations and smaller illustrations in round white frames. These smaller ones focus on the boat, which strengthens the boat’s connection with you, the reader. Some pages have text; some pages are wordless. Through it all, there is movement, movement, movement: the boat pushing through the sea.”

    The Horn Book is relentless. The powers that be in this place have that uncanny knack of regaling us book lovers with one ravishing masterpiece after another, and this uniquely alluring title does indeed invite visual immersion like a locket being employed for hypnotism. I have of course known this was in the planned lineup, and have owned a personal copy since the time it released. I’m a huge fan. The book did not to be sure grab me immediately, but the complex design requires a special kind fo engagement. Your detailed observational narrative here Tarie is fabulous, and I musch enjoyed you taking us on a ride through that Willy Wonka styled tunnel in what is surely one of year’s most imaginative forays. I understand this is not any kind of a frontrunner, and may not be for all tastes, but the more you examine the design and submit to its odd appeal you are won over big time. Brilliant observation too about the weather being perfect but the storm happening among the passengers. Looking forward to more from Mr. Kwon. This could certainly be a sleeper at announcement!

    A truly brilliant and magnificent essay. My quoted paragraph at the outset is a total joy and the way you weave in drama from the story into the actual review is a revelation! Thank you so much Tarie!

  2. Susan Dailey says:

    Thanks for the great review and for pointing out how well the book shows movement. There is a lot of details to study in the illustrations. On the first double-page spread that shows circle shaped vignettes, I like the fact that the edges are irregular in the vignette that says “but sometimes they fight.” I wish those irregular edges would have continued in subsequent vignettes where things are going wrong.

  3. Susan Dailey says:

    I forgot to mention something that I just noticed this year–double-spread title pages. Is this something new? In this book I think it’s a very effective choice.

  4. Susan, good question. I don’t know that they’re necessarily new. I’m going to keep my eye out for this as I continue reading this year.

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