Beach Combing

July 14, 2022 § Leave a comment

We recently returned from a glorious beach week, so it seemed only fitting that I should tell you about my favorite beach-themed picture book of the year. (Psst: don’t forget this fave from 2020.) But first, allow me a minute to wax nostalgic about the art of beach combing. This particular trip was to the ocean—just outside Duck in North Carolina—so there were ample shells to source, especially in the early morning if you beat the crowds. But judging by the quality control practiced by my daughter—or, shall we say, complete lack thereof—it would appear I have failed to impart this skill. “Please save these for me,” I heard over and over, followed by a dumping of shell shards and nondescript pebbles into my hand.

Flash back to my own summers, spent on the shores of Lake Erie at my grandparents’ summer home. There were no shells to be found. Not much in the way of interesting rocks, either. What we did have was seaglass, and my cousins and I fancied ourselves connoisseurs when it came to these specimen of the sea. Any eye could spot a colorful piece of glass among the gray pebbles, but only the most discerning would ensure it was perfectly opaque, its edges worn smooth from years in the water. Anyone could fill their pails with brown glass, even white glass that had once been clear, but a good piece of green was gold, and a piece of blue, especially one bigger than a pencil eraser, was cause for calling out for all to come and see. Each night, we’d comb through our treasure, keeping only the best of the best.

(It’s very important, when beach combing, to examine your treasures once they are dry. The water tends to give even the plainest of finds a gleaning, shimmery mystique. The best treasures are those that sustain their shine all the way to your bedroom shelf, where they can be reborn as art.)

That something as careless as beer bottles thrown over the deck of a ship can transform into jewels that can turn a walk on the beach into something magical never ceases to amaze me. The seaglass of my youth spoke to a mystery I couldn’t see, one I’d never entirely understand. I wondered about the journey of that glass, perhaps as my own children wondered about the bits of shells they recently picked up, certainly as the young protagonist of today’s book tells us she wonders about the creatures who once lived in the shells now washing up on the shore of her grandparents’ house.

Author Kevin Henkes and illustrator Laura Dronzek are no strangers to collaborations when it comes to picture books about the natural world, but Little Houses (Ages 3-6) might be their finest yet, deftly balancing information with poetry, truth with imagination. We follow as a girl examines her beach finds and wonders about the things she doesn’t know. That she has these experiences during a summer spent with grandparents only sweetens the package, recalling the way my own grandmother would swoop in and out of our beach walks, sometimes pausing to procure her own treasure, often marveling at ours, always happy for the chance to muse about the mysteries of the sea.

Told in the girl’s voice, Little Houses establishes its setting right off the bat: a tiny yellow house at the ocean’s edge, where the girl is accustomed to visiting her grandparents. Immediately, we are cued to the marvelous strangeness of it all, like stepping into another world. “Sometimes I think someone is calling me. But it’s just the waves coming in, going out.”

Each morning, the girl and her grandmother comb the beach for shells, like the ones that line the book’s endpapers. They’re careful to keep only the ones that are empty, and the grandmother reminds the girl that “shells are little houses.” Which gets her thinking.

What would it be like to live in a house of “thin pale walls of pink”? Or in a “rounded orange room or one with brown spots like freckles?” Dronzek’s acrylic paintings shine even here, in these close-ups of shells against a plain white background.

The girl’s questions magnify as she holds a shell up to her ear and listens to its faint whisper: “But who lived here? Where is it now? Is its ghost still inside the curved walls? Is that the sound in a shell? Is that the tiny ghost I hear?”

The girl’s grandmother also nudges her to think about the vastness of the ocean, about the things “that might be under that water,” not just the “fish as big as cars” but lost things, forgotten things, things whose pieces might someday wash clean onto the shore…or not.

Vastness can be a scary thing for a child, but the girl’s grandfather gently reminds her that it can be a beautiful thing to dwell in a place with no answers. He also tells her, as only a grandpa would and only a young child would believe, that “someday you’ll know it all.” Which gets her thinking.

She’d like to know about the paths the shells have taken and the age of each rock on the beach. She’d like to know if the “snowy egret has ever seen snow” and—my favorite—how the water can be “blue and gray and green and silver and white and black, all at the same time.”

Each time the wondering becomes too much, the girl returns to the task at hand, marveling at the bird or crab or pebble or shell at her feet, the things she can see on this summer day, as she decides which ones she’ll take home at the end of her trip.

In the book’s final spread, the girl sleeps in her bed beside a shell, “a house in a house in the world.” There’s a circle around the girl that’s painted to look like the earth but also recalls a porthole on a boat or, even, the spiral of a shell itself. Perhaps the most appealing thing about a shell to a child is how cozy that little house seems. Coziness, after all, is something most children are intimately familiar with. Nothing compares to the coziness of falling asleep in a home filled with love for you and the world you inhabit.


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Book gifted by HarperCollins. All opinions are my own. My links support the beautiful indie, Old Town Books, where I am the buyer for the children’s section!

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