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The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles

uncorkerThis is not my kind of picture book. The story is too wispy for me, the language occasionally too twee, and the premise . . . well, I just don’t buy it. But one of the things committee members must do for an award like the Caldecott (or even a mock Caldecott!) is put aside their own personal likes and dislikes. For someone on the committee, this title may be a favorite book of the year, and I am obligated to try to see its strengths. Plus, does it matter if I don’t love the story? I can feel so-so about a picture book’s text and still be wowed by the art, still admire how text and art interact, still support the book for Caldecott recognition.

In Erin E. Stead’s art for The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles, setting and mood could not be evoked more atmospherically, and thus more appropriately for the story. Stead’s art is all about color and texture. The blue-green of her sea is THE blue-green of the sea. Her soft, sandy orange: yes, that’s the color of beach dunes. The primary medium here seems to be woodblock prints (augmented with oil pastels and pencil), lending every illustration an almost palpable texture. You can practically put your hand through that water. And how outside-the-box of her to use woodblocks — so solid; so land-based — to make such gorgeous pictures of WATER. It seems almost like a contradiction, but Stead makes it work.

In a book about making connections, I am particularly struck by Stead’s edges. They blend, they blur. She captures the horizon line, or lack of it, perfectly. Those days when you can’t tell when the sea ends and the sky begins? — here they are, in this book.

Two gloriously green double-page spreads echo each other, at decisive moments. The first one is when the Uncorker discovers the party-at-the-seashore invitation. We look down on him from above as he scoops the bottle up into his kayak. The second spread is when the Uncorker decides he’s going to go to the seashore (to apologize for being unable to deliver the invitation). We look down on him from above as he lies in bed, clutching the paper invitation — and the floor of his room gradually morphs into (what I interpret to be) seawater. It’s very effective visual repetition.

Admittedly, I’m not as impressed with the pencil-drawn human figures, and Stead’s hats actively defy the rules of gravity. No way the chef’s hat with the bird perched atop it is staying on that cake maker’s head. In fact, I don’t think the laws of physics allow that toque to stay on his head in a single illustration.

And yet … with such virtuosity on display, such gorgeous yet minimalist seascapes — I think this book HAS to end up on the Caldecott table, at the very least. What think you?


Martha V. Parravano About Martha V. Parravano

Martha V. Parravano is book review editor of The Horn Book, Inc., and co-author of the Calling Caldecott blog.



  1. “And yet … with such virtuosity on display, such gorgeous yet minimalist seascapes — I think this book HAS to end up on the Caldecott table, at the very least. What think you?”

    I do adore this book myself. A real lot. The impressionistic strokes bring the beech and aquatic essence out in sensory terms. You can just about taste the salt. Yes those minimalist seascapes would appear to be highly regarded by the committee, or at least may be. The cover is one of the most striking of any book this year too. I couldn’t agree with you more on those two magnificent green color double page spreads. I don’y myself have a problem with the human-drawn figures -for me that fondly echo Evaline Ness’s work in “Sam, Bangs and Moonshine” but I can see your position. I have to agree with you on that hat though. It would take an acrobat to negotiate that stance. In evoking a sense of place this book really reign supreme. But you pretty much said that here yourself when you discussed color and texture as integral to the Steads’ art. I’d say texture gets the slight edge, but there is no way to separate them really.

    If I can divert just a bit, I wanted to comment on the Steads in general this year. “Ocean Bottles” has been joined by “Ideas Are All Around” and “Samson in the Snow” two books that for me rate among the best books of 2016. I am not sure I can name a favorite of these three, though perhaps Samson is a hair behind the co-leaders (for me), as terrific as it is.

    I much enjoyed reading this masterful piece.

  2. I think it’s beautiful, but the book as a whole just doesn’t work for me either. And the more I read it, the LESS I like it, which is a bad sign. And one phrase keeps nagging at me: “a clam-hugged pearl.” Shouldn’t it be an oyster-hugged pearl?!?

  3. Jen Mason Stott says:

    Twee, twee, twee. Martha, your assessment of the art is lovely-and yet, your ambivalence should not be ignored as the Caldecott honors are debated. To many of us working school librarians, there have been quite a few Caldecott and Newbery choices in the last decade or so that fall flat – not for lack of beauty, but because they just don’t work for children. SLJ (Anita Silvey and others) covered this a few years back. School librarians keep these awards vital by framing programming and curriculum around them; many of us hang posters or hand out bookmarks listing all of the winning books over the many years. We need books that hold up.

    Come January, school librarians wait, purchase orders in hand. ALA awards are announced (I stream the ceremony on the library wall). The books go into another hardcover printing, stamped in gold or silver, and we dutifully order those we missed…only to find we spent our painfully small budgets on books that we don’t like reading to kids and they don’t like reading alone. A possible result-children are less inclined to value or trust those award stickers.

  4. Martha V. Parravano Martha V. Parravano says:

    Ah yes, Jen — the perennial question of popularity. Also the perennial question of whether or not the award is for the entire picture book or just the art. For better or worse, the Caldecott award was established in order to be a companion to the Newbery, which recognized text; the Caldecott would recognize art. And “kid friendliness” is not one of the Caldecott criteria. Same with the Newbery. I think people, especially school librarians who serve a specific readership, are setting themselves up for disappointment if they think about these two ALA awards that way. It’s nice when the winning books connect with kids — but it doesn’t always happen, and its not in their mandate to happen. Fortunately, for your purposes, there are myriad other sources of recommendations for great picture books. And of course the best measurement of what works for your own school population is looking at the books yourself and making your own assessment.

  5. Robin Smith says:

    I agree with Martha that librarians are in for a world of hurt if they think these awards are for popularity with kids!! And, as we all learned a few years ago with “This One Summer,” the Caldecott is not just for young children, but for kids up to age 14.
    Review journals should address issues like audience, which is why it’s sooooo important for librarians do a lot of reading before spending their way-too-small budgets! Plus, you know your readers!
    Another thing that is NOT part of the criteria is popularity with librarians. However, since the awarded books have made it through the gauntlet, these should be great books to discuss and analyze with children. I think Martha has provided some really great ideas to ponder, hasn’t she?
    I’m running to see the pages with human forms right now! And I love that she mentioned the edges in a book that’s all about connections. I’d want my students to talk about that!

  6. Brenda Martin says:

    I like this discussion and it reminds us all about the criteria. However, I think it’s important to separate the problems that some have noted with the text and the popularity issue. Stead’s watercolors are as usual amazing, despite the hat! I don’t believe that her illustrations would be a reason for kids not to pick this one up. The title alone will probably prompt some curious kids to investigate. It’s perhaps not the kid-friendliest, but it’s not going to scare kids off either.

    As for the issues with the text (which I also find somewhat twee, and overall “good” rather than outstanding), I think we msut be honest about how the text influences the decision of the Committee. Because a book could have amazing illustrations, but if the text is subpar (which I would argue is not the case here), I would suspect that there wouldn’t be nominations for that book. So despite the Caldecott being an award for illustration, a reasonably good text is a serious component to getting it at the table for discussion.

  7. Allison Grover Khoury says:

    My third graders especially liked this book when I read it as part of the Caldecott reading program I do in the K-3 grades in the fall. The second graders did too. I tried to choose almost contrasting books each week, so something raucous one week would be followed by this book. I think the story is subtle and the art so soft and gentle and melancholy. The children were captivated. Whether it gets their vote in January, or the actual Committee really goes for it – a different discussion. I always get depressed when I read the discussions about the Caldecott Committee, not having to consider what children and librarians think. I wish I had a brilliant comment to end this with but I haven’t. I’ll just say that I really like this book, much of the illustration is brilliant, but there are others I’d like to see rewarded with honors and medals this year.

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