Caldcott Honor in 1942
I am grateful to destiny for leading us to this book. I am duly presenting it here. As my 7 year old promptly adds Paddle-to-the-sea to her list of favorites, I see us both recommending and reading this book several times in the future, and not many books are thatcompelling.
The book was published in 1941. It was a Caldecott Honor Winner. The movie version was an Oscar nominee as well. Holling.C.Holling is generous with natural details in the story and fluent in writing it with a geographic pitch.
A young native American boy carves a wooden man-figure on a canoe and names him Paddle-to-the-sea. After addressing the mechanical needs, he etches the words Please put me back in water – I am Paddle to the sea, along the underbelly of his “toy”. He sets him on a mound of snow in the wild, in Nipigon country in Canada. He hopes and waits for Paddle to start his travel when the ice thaws in spring and the stream takes him along. It is an innocent escapade born out of the boy’s longing for nautical travel and adventure.
Thus begins Paddle’s aquatic journey. The destination is the ocean, Atlantic Ocean. The small river where he sets off eventually leads him to the Great Lakes – the five lakes – Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario. Transiting through the St.Lawrence river to Newfoundland, he journeys to the ocean. Each chapter celebrates an encounter, a gamble, a risk. Sometimes it is a slow struggle. Sometimes it is a quick squirm out. Most times Paddle is just plain lucky. Interspersed are passages of serenity, nothing but the quietness of the still water or the murmur of a brook.
It is not an easy ride for Paddle. He rides a log into a saw mill and escapes by the skin of his teeth. He gets trapped in a marsh. He weathers wind and rain and storms to keep sailing. Sometimes he is washed ashore and later tossed back into the lakes. He even finds himself netted. Passing many pairs of human hands, the message underneath constantly evolves. Paddle also spends a winter with a coastguard. Then there is the wrong detour and the forest fire… he even nosedives in the Niagara Falls. Rivers, lakes, streams, creeks, beaches and bays – Paddle meets every body of water on his trip.
What makes this book wondrous is that every textual page on the left carries informative black-and-white diagrams. Sometimes with little hand written notes and markings. This helps a lot with mastering the topographical details of the lakes and the region, and with visualizing the details of Paddle’s intricate risks – be it a saw mill, a canal lock, a lake freighter or a buoy. All these also fuel a sense of proximity to the chaos that we often see on a dock or by the pier. Like these aren’t enough to get ourselves entangled with Paddle and his nail biting water adventures, the pictures on the right burst with color, in striking images of the sky, lakes, wilderness, woods, boats, birds and Paddle himself.
A chapter runs a page, making it a great transitional book for younger readers. It is an engaging resource for learning about the Great Lakes and thus makes wonderful classroom material. The visual support we get through maps, trail markings, one-liner-facts and detailed drawings with named parts is invaluable. It is great literature, in print for generations to learn and enjoy. Offer it to a child who is ready for this kind of a package. More of Holling’s geo-historic fiction that tell the story of a journey while celebrating nature are Seabird, Minn of the Mississippi, Pagoo and Tree in the trail.
But was all the drama that Paddle survived worth it at the end? Does Paddle finally make it into the Atlantic ? Does the Indian boy know it? Where is he now? Does he get to see Paddle again? Where is Paddle now?
And in the same vein, has my review done justice to the book? I doubt it. But I feel good, the kind of feeling-good that comes from sharing. And sometimes from discovering something magnificent and glorious. Like the waters of the deep oceans and the dark seas….