When the Sea Works its Magic

August 6, 2020 § 2 Comments

The value of a change of scenery during this pandemic cannot be overstated. Last week, we spent five nights in a rental on the Chesapeake Bay, our front door just steps to a tiny slice of sand, a bank of beautiful rocks, two kayaks, and a half mile of clear shallow water for wading, before dropping off to deeper water and stunning sunrises beyond.

The entire trip felt like a brief return to normalcy (look, we’re a family who vacations!). It was also a gift which arrived at precisely the right time. In the weeks leading up to our departure, I felt a heaviness descend on our family, the sum total of weariness from the past five months and the grinding uncertainty of the new school year.

The sea knew what we needed. For a few magical days, it drew us out of our heads and into our bodies, then engulfed us in a delicious weightlessness. It gave us expanses of space—so much space—at which to marvel, after staring at the inside of four walls for too long.

The sea didn’t get everything right (we didn’t need the jellyfish), but it reminded us that there is beauty in the world, that it hasn’t gone anywhere, and that in connecting to this beauty we can connect to the best in ourselves. We can be a little looser. A little messier. Smile a little more.

As it turns out, one of my favorite picture books of the year also features some welcome meddling by the sea. It has been awhile since I hailed a beachy picture book (last were here and here), and this one proves well worth the wait. Swashby and the Sea (Ages 3-7), written by Beth Ferry and illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal (quickly becoming one of my favorite contemporary illustrators), reminds us that sometimes the sea knows what we need even before we do.

Captain Swashby and the sea go way back: “The sea and he had been friends for a long, long time. She knew him in and out, up and down, and better than anyone.” So when Swashby retires, he chooses a small house on a small piece of beach, where he parks his well-worn boat, El Recluso, and spends quiet days gazing out at the sea, his back arched like the rolling waves.

But there’s an unwelcome development. Swashby’s days are becoming less and less serene, owing to a young girl and her granny who have taken up residence—“commandeered,” to be precise—in the empty house next door. In our first glimpse of the girl, her body is obscured by a beach towel printed in a vibrant cobalt blue, the kind of geometric designs Martinez-Neal loves to sneak into her picture books, and one in stark contrast to the sandy, hazy, beige-y blue landscape which Swashby calls home.

Swashby may not be living during a pandemic, but he’s still hellbent on keeping his distance from this girl, her granny, their perky beach towels, and the little feet bold enough to walk uninvited down his deck. He runs inside and battens down the hatches, but not before making his feelings known by writing NO TRESPASSING in the sand.

Enter the character of the sea, who “fiddles” with Swashby’s words just the tiniest bit, sending waves to wash away the first eight letters and leave behind an entirely different instruction: SING. And that the girl does. “She sang every song she knew while dancing up and down Swashby’s deck,” her windblown hair, gangly outstretched limbs, and sandy feet evocative of the joy every child feels during those magical first days at the beach.

Children are drawn like moths to a flame when it comes to anything off limits, and our girl is no exception. She hangs around Swashby’s quarters with the presumption that her joviality is just what the old sea captain wants. “What now?” she asks. To which Swashby responds later that night with another sandy proclamation: NOW VANISH!

Once more, the tides of the sea have the last say, manipulating the letters to spell W-ISH!, which the girl is only too happy to oblige, picking up the starfish serving as the bottom of the exclamation point. If his flaming red nose is any indication, Swashby’s blood pressure is now quite elevated, but as he storms over to where the girl and her granny stand, his response takes us by surprise.

“No, no,” Swashby interrupted, stomping down the steps. “If ye mean to make a starfish wish, ye must say this:
‘Starfish back to waves so blue.
The sea will see a wish come true.’

If Swashby is forced to endure these interruptions to his peaceful existence, he can at least make sure the interruptions are executed properly.

For the next few pages, the story’s rhythm mimics the back-and-forth movement of the tides themselves: the girl and her granny invite Swashby to tea or to make sandcastles, while Swashby grumbles and mumbles and hides himself away, all the while leaving messages in the sand (PLEASE GO AWAY) for the sea to tamper with (PL-AY). Lest she gets the wrong idea, Swashby takes every chance to remind the girl that “Swashbys don’t play”—even though his interference suggests he may be quite an expert on the subject (“It’s the clam shells ye should be usin,” he calls out, when he decides the girl’s sandcastles are too plain).

As it turns out, it’s a good thing Swashby can’t ignore his pesky new neighbor, because in the midst of her playing, a rogue wave carries the girl out to sea. Before her granny can yell for help, “Swashby was already there.” Martinez-Neal’s use of line in this spread is masterful: with just a few strokes, she manages to convey at once Swasby’s intimacy with the sea—his body curves like the waves themselves—and his purposeful movement cutting straight through the water towards the girl.

As Swashby carries the girl to safety (“ye great salty imp”) and is bestowed with plentiful thanks and hugs, something shifts inside him. A loosening, perhaps. “I see what ye did there,” he whispers to the sea, finally accepting that the sea has been acting as matchmaker all along.

Ahoy, what goes there? Could that be a smile on Swashby’s face, as he sits beside the girl on her towel and feasts on ice cream and lobster and s’mores? As he “shares his special sea glass”? For the first time since the story began, Swashby isn’t wearing his blue sweater—nearly a fixture of the beach itself—and seems to be relaxing into his bare (and tattooed) arms.

Swashby didn’t know how badly he needed to get outside his own head, to shed his angst and get his hands on something real and good and true.

But the sea did.

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox 3-4 times a month. Plus, follow me on Instagram (@thebookmommy), where I’m most active these days, posting reviews and updates on what my kids are reading, or Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) and Twitter (@thebookmommy).

Review copy by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are used, although I prefer we all shop local and support our communities when we can.

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