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Because of the simplicity of this story, it's not possible to review it adequately without giving away much of what happens. I'm sorry if that's a problem for you.
===A Good Find ===
I love charity shops! It's just as well, as we have so many of them in our market town. We're not too well off for shopping facilities these days, so the charity shops make life more interesting. I've found them to be a great source of books, and children's books in particular. Often I come across something that would never be available in the small branch of WH Smiths which is our only real bookshop. This was how I came upon 'The Big, Big Sea'. A quick browse through it, and I was happy to pay the very reasonable price of £1 for a hardback book that's in nearly new condition.
===First Impressions ===
I was initially drawn to this book by the stunning illustration on the front cover. There's a bright full moon in the sky, throwing its light on to the sea and beach. On the beach, to the left, is a little girl who is turning slightly as though to look at something on her right. I guess she's no older than five, but it's hard to be sure. She's bathed in silvery moonlight, too, with just a hint of skin tone showing on her face and arms. She really is quite beautiful. To the right of the moon we have the author's name, the title in an elegant cursive script, and details of the illustrator. There was something about this picture that resonated with me, although it wasn't until later that I realised it reminded me of an evening when we holidayed in Norfolk. We were in the sea at about 9 at night, and my daughter would have been a similar age, enjoying swimming with my father. How nostalgic and actually quite a precious memory!
=== The Story===
'Mum said, "Let's go!" So we went ...'
This is a simple story of a mother and daughter enjoying some special time on the beach in the moonlight. In many ways, that's all there is to it. The charm lies in the way each part of the experience is delivered with relish: 'I went right in to the shiny bit. There was only me in the big, big sea.' It's told by the daughter, reliving her experience - how much later we can't know. It isn't written in especially poetic language, yet for me there is a lot of poetry in the story. Partly it's through the repetition of the phrase 'Mum and me' with a few variations; partly it's in the way there are rhymes with 'sea' 'me' 'be' - but on some pages, not all, so it's subtly done. Somehow I feel Waddell has managed to use language that's appropriate for a young child while still writing beautifully, as if every word is there on merit.
===Reflections - No Pun Intended===
It's not often that a book written for small children has such an effect on me. True, the repetition of key phrases and the rhythm and poetry of the text make it a joy to read aloud. They almost seem to echo the sound of the waves on the seashore. True, each part of this unusual trip to the beach is described carefully and beautifully. There are deeper things here, though, for me. Waddell and Eachus have managed to create a dreamlike experience through this story - it's a bit like being in that half-asleep, half-awake state first thing in the morning. You could read into it that Waddell is tackling - or not - some gender stereotypes here; a girl and her mother: is it safe for a mum to take a small girl down to the beach at night time like this? I'd rather take it more at face value. There are two phrases that touch me on an emotional level: the mother says "Remember this time. It's the way life should be."What a wise woman, and what a good message! Then at the end the girl says "I'll always remember just Mum and me and the night that we walked by the big big sea". A timely reminder to all of us, parents or not, that it's quality time together that builds relationships and memories.
Martin Waddell is a Northern Irish author who still writes in the town where he was brought up - Newcastle, in County Down, in the shadow of the Mountains of Mourne. I believe it's a coastal town and it seems likely to me that this is the setting for 'The Big, Big Sea'. He is well known for works including 'Owl Babies' and 'Farmer Duck'. He has written for adults and older children as well as for young children. I'm sure Irish readers could add much more!
The pictures are a major part of this book; they are not a supporting act to the story but an integral part of it. Facing each page of text is at least a full page illustration. Sometimes this illustration carries over on to the text page. There is one double page illustration, too. I'm no art expert, but I'd describe them as exquisite.
I was intrigued to read that Jennifer Eachus had been a preschool teacher before becoming a full-time illustrator. She had studied graphic design at the Liverpool College of Art. I didn't find out too much more about her, other than she is a mother of three and seems to live in Wales now, having lived in France previously. She has illustrated several other books, but I'm rather ashamed to admit the only one I'm familiar with is 'I'm Sorry' which was written by Sam McBratney. She seems to specialise in illustrating books that have a strong emotive pull, such as dealing with separation from a parent, [Forces, maybe?] and the death of a grandparent The illustrations in this book are watercolours, as I think they may be in most of her books.
I thought that I knew a lot about quality books for preschool children, having managed a preschool for over twenty years. Somehow this little gem slipped through. I so wish I had grandchildren to read it to! I can't wait to read it with the little ones when I'm next in preschool as I believe they'll love it. It would be suitable for children from about 2 to 5 years, I think. I believe it would be equally suitable to read in a group as to individual children, though I think there would be more opportunities for discussion with a smaller group. I'd highly recommend it and can't give it less than five stars. I love it!
First published 1994 by Walker Books Ltd
Price £7.99 [hardback] as indicated on my copy.
Currently available on Amazon UK in paperback at £4.49 and eligible for free Super Saver Delivery.
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©Verbena September 2013
~ And Mum said to me, "Remember this time. It's the way life should be." ~
Pleased to have found a children's illustrator who gives her little girls practical clothes, rather than the ubiquitous pink dress, I was in search of more books with Jennifer Eachus' impressive watercolour illustrations for my daughter, when I discovered 'The Big Big Sea,' (Walker Books). This picture book for young children in which a little girl and her mother visit the sea on a moonlit night was originally published in 1994 and re-issued a couple of years ago. It's a simple tale told and illustrated exquisitely.
Because of the little girl on the cover I imagine many people would think of it as a book for little girls, but just as girls are commonly expected to read books with male leads, so this book is fine for either gender. It's such a straightforward story that it can be read to very young children, who after all, care not about the gender of characters in books until it is impressed upon them by others that certain books are for girls or boys. My daughter loves this and I just wish she'd had it from a much younger age as it is beginning to feel a little young for her now, at the grand old age of four and a half.
The story begins with the words: "Mum said, 'Let's go!' So we went ...", the accompanying picture is an almost silhouette of a woman waiting by her daughter as she puts her sandals on. The spontaneous mood develops throughout the pages into a celebration of nature, freedom and the love between a mother and child.
The pair cross over a field and under a fence then pause to take in their surroundings before they run to the sea and splash in the water. A double page spread shows the little girl looking up in awe at the moon, and is so well done that the reader must surely pause and appreciate a moment in time. We may not actually be at the sea ourselves, but this is as close as a book can get to taking us there. On the following pages the girl's face is sheer exhilaration as she jumps and splashes about. Later, she gets cold and tired and is carried back to eat warm buttered toast and fall asleep on Mum's knee.
The rhythm and repetition in both words and images reflect the rhythms of life and nature. The symbolism of moon and water add to the powerful feminine atmosphere and Eachus' silvery hues help to convey a profound experience in a moving, almost mystical tale. The characters are not named which adds to the sense of freedom, they could be any mum and daughter on any beach. The fact that the characters are female may seem incidental to some, yet they make powerful role models. I wonder how many women would actually feel safe and confident enough to behave like the mother in the book. Sadly I fear I would be looking over my shoulder for the bogeyman were I to take my daughter down to an empty beach at night, but here mother and daughter are strong female characters in the most natural sense, they feel free to be themselves.
I doubt that experienced children's author Martin Waddell set out with the intent of writing a book for feminist mothers to cherish, (although I find it intriguing that he often uses the female pseudonym Catherine Sefton), but against the backdrop of a culture obsessed with looks and body image starting at the toddler stage these days, a book in which a little girl runs around a beach at night feels revolutionary. Waddell and Eachus' beautiful book conveys an energy of pure joy.
Illustrated in full colour throughout by Jennifer Eachus, a picture book about the sea and the creatures who live in it.