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I spent that summer outrunning sunburns at a Carolina beach. My sister and I dug for crabs, gathered shipwrecked slivers and the pinkest shells from dunes. At night, my dad told us stories in the light of hurricane lamps because at seven, though I loved words, I still couldn’t read.
My parents tried everything--fairy books, a private tutor (those of you from the 80’s remember "Hooked on Phonics?") but after kindergarten, words were still loose packages of sound and rhythm for me. I couldn’t focus them onto pages where lettering slipped like black eels. To compensate, I “read” to my parents from stories I had memorized, embellishing here, skipping words there. I turned salty pages myself, marking the storyline in pictures. Then, I started to care about the order of my words, about how each picture came into play. Eventually, I noticed that there were fewer black squiggles below than I had imagined, and in trying to match my rhythms to theirs, the sound-image connection happened. The eels floated up and into focus one at a time.
Flotsam, a Caldecott Winner precisely illustrated by David Weisner, is a narrative built only in pictures with soft edges and ocean hues. Weisner’s captionless images ask readers to imagine the storyline beneath, and perhaps to narrate it to someone within earshot. Flotsam is full of perfect details—tiny crustaceans, tentacles, a washed up camera from the sea—secrets to pluck out of the sand and build into words. As the story becomes more fantastic, more creatures appear who need names, scales shift into the surreal, and curious scenes surface that inspire explanation.
In the forward, Wiesner defines Flotsam as “Something that floats. If it floats in the ocean, it may wash up on the beach, where someone may find it and be astonished, and share the discovery with someone else…”
I would love to see Flotsam passed around a circle of sunkissed early-readers on a sandy carpet, to see them build the story page by page and let a love of images wash to one of words, the way it once did for me. This book would be perfect when paired with a class unit on ocean life, or an aquarium field trip. I teach writing using a lot of imagery, and am especially hoping to create a lesson in which I give each of my students one of the images from Flotsam, and prompt the class to create a collaborative poem by combining their descriptions.
For a peek at Flotsam's amazing illustrations click here--> http://www.hmhbooks.com/wiesner/flotsam.html !
Sarah Minor is the Education Intern at the Poetry Center and Co-editor of the Wordplay blog. She is a current MFA candidate in Nonfiction at the University of Arizona.