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Water Land: Land and Water Forms Around the World

I saw the cover and a single preview page of Christy Hale’s Water Land online and thought gleefully (and a little smugly) to myself that Hale probably had no idea she’d put together a perfect Montessori picture book. It’s just like our Water and Land Forms! Simple! Elegant! Clean! If only she knew! Once I finally pored over a physical copy and read the back cover — which explains that Hale did, in fact, have a pretty good idea — I was all the more thrilled to see what it held inside.

For some context: the Water and Land Forms for the Montessori primary classroom are designed to offer children a concrete experience with the topographical features of their world. With them, a child pours water into one of the forms and can watch it spill into the negative space, touch it with her fingers, and acquaint herself with the ridges, depths, and curves of a particular form and its matching inverse form.

Water Land capitalizes on the sensorial experience of these forms and translates it into both a sensorial and visual experience in the codex, all the while adding what Roger Sutton calls “funny little human dramas” that animate the places where land and water meet. Hale’s tactfully placed die-cuts do cleverly demonstrate the inverse relationships of the land/water pairs with each page-turn, but the most exciting part of the page-turns lies in the clever transformations that occur with every flip. I began reading Water Land with a child, and we had to stop after the first two spreads: lake and island. He was captivated by the tiny, fallen red leaf next to the lake that had somehow become a small fire puffing out an SOS from the island on the next page. Taking charge, he flipped back and forth between those two spreads, creating scenarios for the children in the images, and deciding that maybe, after all, it had been a fire the whole time. In one of my very favorite reflections on the book form, Remy Charlip says that a “thrilling picture book not only makes beautiful single images or sequential images, but also allows us to become aware of a book’s unique physical structure, by bringing our attention, once again, to that momentous moment: the turning of the page.” If there was ever a book that capitalized on such a “momentous moment,” one that delights in turning both forward and backward,  it is Hale’s Water Land.

The book’s success as a concept book hinges on the clear delineation of, well, water and land; and every element of the illustrations — and the entire book design — work in its favor. As already mentioned, the die-cuts create obvious separation between the two, but the consistency and boldness in a limited color palette also punctuate the conceptual unity. Land and the corresponding descriptive text appear each time as a buttery, mottled yellow, translating beautifully into sweeping sandy beaches and coastlines; water, with the same textured effect and matching labels, glimmers and froths beneath swimmers, sailors, and the single (and, quite honestly, alarming) shark fin.

Human and animal life on each page add color and playfulness to the largely two-toned illustrations, splashing the pages with pinks and greens and softened reds and browns. The illustrations have the minimalism and appeal of Art Deco travel posters, effectively seducing the reader into wanting to explore each land mass and body of water on their own. Visit Isthmus! Fly to Archipelago! Consider the double-page spread for cape, for example. An exuberant windsurfer seemingly splashes the reader in her skim across the water, while on land a candy-striped lighthouse stands at attention over the small, sea oats–lined beach and a single sunbather. The word cape stands at the bottom of the page in the stout serif typeface used throughout the book. The playful and simple scene, like all the others, is at once inviting and invigorating — practically begging us to go a cape, too. (Twist my arm, really.)

Beyond the “narrative” proper, Hale maintains this consistency of color and shape on a closing spread that defines each of the named land and water forms, but the most glorious moment lies just one more manipulation-of-the-page away. The next page-turn, in fact, is instead an unfolding, and the book becomes a map of the world — but one still holding to the blue (for water) and yellow (for land) we’ve seen all along. Hale makes the absolute most of what a book can do, not only offering a visual experience within the book itself but inviting the child to look beyond it.

But what will the Caldecott committee think? Water Land’s efficacy as a concept book does not necessarily equate Caldecott contention, though the criteria do ask that the honored “picture book has a collective unity of story-line, theme, or concept, developed through the series of pictures of which the book is comprised.” As Lolly Robinson noted before Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s Green (another work of die-cut magic) earned itself a Caldecott Honor, concept books do not seem to fare well with the committee. Until then, this book will remain proudly displayed next to the Water and Land Forms in our Montessori classroom, and our children will continue to marvel at every tiny leaf-turned-flame, each tent-abiding bear, and all the other small details found in every momentous moment of the turning of these pages.

[Read the Horn Book Magazine review of Water Land here.]

Grace McKinney About Grace McKinney

Grace McKinney is an assistant primary guide at Wild Rose Montessori School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a writer at Cosmic Bookshelf.

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Comments

  1. “Water Land capitalizes on the sensorial experience of these forms and translates it into both a sensorial and visual experience in the codex…..”

    I totally agree and much appreciate this terrific review employing a Montessouri context. This particular title was purchased from Amazon after I saw it on The Horn Book lineup in the “We’re Off” launch post by Julie. (my copy is imperfect as the blue card page of “Penninsula” overlaps the between covers. But I can get by with it well enough. The first-graders LOVE the book and its educational purpose hit the mark. The book’s die-cups and general construction, including that rather ingenious multi-paned world map with scene-specific locations highlighting the places previous explored in the previous spreads are splendidly negotiated, the blue and yellow attractive and the printed textures/digital overlay art is a feast for the yes and as I stated in other words, captivated the kids. As to the committee, I can’t say how they will approach this and is the concept aspect will be problematic in the general picture. But it is expertly done, enormously appealing, educationally sound and quite creative so you’d think it is will be looked at attentively. Again, a fabulous review, much appreciated!

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