Hey, Water!

Forgive me, dear readers, but I’m sort of cheating. I’m writing about Antoinette Portis’s Hey, Water! here at Calling Caldecott when, earlier this year, I reviewed it for the Horn Book Magazine. I’m going to embrace this, though, by leaning into my review and reiterating here the many things I like about this lively picture book.

In my review, I described the book as both playful and informative. Yep. This is something Portis consistently does well in her books, and this one is no exception. In case you’re not familiar with Hey, Water!, it’s an exploration of water inside and out of a girl’s home (and then far beyond and back again). The girl’s name is Zoe, and she speaks directly (and enthusiastically) to water: “Hey, water! I know you,” she says on the opening spread. “You’re all around.” She consistently uses this immediate second-person voice throughout the book: “You trickle and gurgle and rush toward the sea.”

We follow water and its many uses in and around Zoe's home (faucet, sprinkler, shower, hose), looking at the different forms it can take. Then, delightfully, the scope expands, giving us a larger (and aerial) view of things. We’re looking down at the Earth (it’s rather thrilling!) to see a stream, river, and then an ocean. Right after that, we start to gradually shrink back to smaller bodies of water — a lake, a pool, a puddle, a dewdrop, rain, and a tear that slides down Zoe’s check “without a sound.” I love this journey we take as readers — looking closely, stepping back (waaaaay back) to look down and see the bigger picture, and then returning to our immediate surroundings, even to our own bodies in the form of that tear.

The water also switches forms – from liquid to gas – to become steam, a cloud, and fog. We get a glimpse of water as a solid, too, in the form of ice cubes and snow. This is a smart way to end the book, as it’s, arguably, the most playful of the girl’s explorations: she plays in the snow and builds a snowman, utter joy on her face. (She is consistently exuberant. Check out that joyous cover!)

Portis’s use of figurative language, as I noted in my review, is particularly eloquent (rain that roars, steam that huffs, dewdrops that wink from blades of grass, and water that freezes “soft as a feather”), but what about these aqua-colored illustrations? They are crisp, eye-catching, and perfectly clean and uncluttered. Lines and simple shapes are the name of the game here — the boldly outlined faucet and water that sprays from it in a cone shape; the snake-like shapes of the hose, a stream, and a river; the waves on the ocean (which takes up every inch of space on the spread) that echo the waves featured on the endpapers; the many tear shapes; and even the curvy lines on a skating rink (water can freeze “hard as a rock … a rock we can skate on”). One of the final illustrations is the simple, heavily outlined shape of a glass, the same spread on which the girl directly thanks water: “Hey, water, thank you!” Water is life, she knows it, and she’s grateful. 

But my favorite thing? You can see Portis’s brushstrokes on many of these spreads, such as the verdant “dewdrop” spread and in the many waves we see throughout the book. It brings a sense of immediacy to the subject matter at hand.

Water is something we also need to conserve. Portis addresses this in the book’s back matter, which also includes more information on water forms and the water cycle. Could this be a book that committee members are going to closely consider? I’ve no idea, but I do know this: it’d be thrilling to see the Medal or an Honor go to a picture book that would thrill young scientists. Martha wrote here two years ago in a round-up post about this very thing: “It's rare enough for a nonfiction picture book to get Caldecott recognition — but a science book? Never.” (She did, however, include Jason Chin’s Grand Canyon in that small round-up, which ended up winning a 2018 Honor!)  

I’ll extend the “Go, science!” Martha typed at the end of that 2017 post to add a “Go, water!” I think this is certainly a book worth close inspection by the committee. Go, Portis!

Julie Danielson
Julie Danielson
Julie Danielson writes about picture books at the blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. She also writes for Kirkus Reviews and BookPage and is a lecturer for the School of Information Sciences graduate program at the University of Tennessee. Her book Wild Things!: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature, written with Betsy Bird and Peter D. Sieruta, was published in 2014.

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