I always suspected there was more to David Soman than met the eye. That’s the problem with success. Folks just dismiss you out of hand. If the man’s name is ringing a couple bells here and there that’s probably you have, at some point in your life, read a child one of the Ladybug Girl books that he created with his wife Jacky Davis. Ladybug Girl is a big hit (particularly in my household) and therein lies the trouble. When people think of picture book bestsellers they sometimes associate it with books like Pinkalicious or those perfectly nice but innocuous Night Before books. They don’t think about truly lovely art. Yet ever since the beginning, Soman hasn’t been afraid to make his books beautiful. For me, one of his greatest works is Ladybug Girl at the Beach. I loved the way he shaped his watercolors to give the impression of gigantic waves and pounding surf. It took him a while, but at long last Soman is returning to a nautical theme and it’s in this, his solo effort Three Bears in a Boat. Haunting and touching by turns, this is just a beautiful journey you’ll want to return to repeatedly.
It wasn’t their best idea. But Dash, Theo, and Charlie were so sure they’d be able to reach that distant jar of honey their mama put out of grasp on the mantle shelf. Unfortunately in their bid for sweets they accidentally destroy their mother’s lovely blue seashell. The solution? If they can set out across the sea in their little boat and find a replacement seashell, maybe their mother won’t even notice the switch. So away they go, but after asking for advice it seems the only place to find such a shell is on an island shaped like a lumpy hat. As one old sea salt advises them, “Just look the right place.” Thus begins a mini epic, as the bears encounter creatures, storms, and even dark caves in their quest for the near impossible.
When children read picture books, they carry away images that stay with them the rest of their lives. Their lifelong dreams are infused with the illustrations of their youth. There is a reason that the English poet Walter de la Mare once said, “Only the rarest kind of best in anything can be good enough for the young.” It means that if you give them beauty, they’ll take that beauty with them and carry it in their minds for always. I say all this because there is a very particular two-page spread in this book so awe-inspiring and frightening and gorgeous that I think it will be infecting my dreams as much as those of my children. In the midst of a fight, the three little bears do not notice that a storm has grown up around them. They do not notice, I say, until a sudden two-page spread of a mountainous wave, green at its core (why should green be so frightening, I wonder), towers over their tiny boat. The only book I’ve ever seen conjure up similar feelings of helplessness in the wake of a wall of water to this extent would be Ed Young’s devastating wave in Tsunami by Kimiko Kajikawa.
Mind you, Soman’s much more than just a fount of terror. Water is not just his medium of choice (watercolors) but his inspiration. One moment you can see the sea spray pelting the little bears in their boat, the waves rising up around them like living things. The next moment the water is “as smooth and calm as glass” and Soman perfectly captures the wavy mirror-like reflection of the three now thoroughly baffled bears. There are other moments of pure beauty before this, of course. A scene where a pod of whales lift them from the green-blue sea benignly. Another where their little boat sits poised in the white-hot light of the sun, the waves all spit and flecks of white around them. It doesn’t disappoint.
Soman isn’t afraid to put in a couple jokes for parent readers as well. I’m a fan of in-jokes. When I consider the lot of parents forced to read the same three picture books over and over to their kiddos I feel all the more grateful when folks like Soman come up with ways to keep things interesting. At one point in this book the three bears start asking fellow bear/boat travelers for help locating a blue shell for their mama. The first boat contains four bears on a raft, the youngest wearing overalls. This is the Huckleberry Finn boat, complete with Duke and King. Well played there. They also see a boat called the “Melville” crammed with bears of all sorts. From the polar bear with tattoos around his face and shoulder to the stern captain, harpoon in hand, this is the Moby Dick boat. So that’s clear as crystal. It is at this point that you might start wondering what a third boat would consist of. What other fictional classics take place on the water? I suppose that there’s Life of Pi, but that’s a bit recent. Or maybe something a little overdone like Noah’s Ark. Instead, Soman gets a bit crazy on us. Here. Take a look at this:
Now think and think hard. These bears may look somewhat familiar to you. What are they from? Could it be Waiting for Godot? No, that doesn’t take place on the sea. Well then where are they from? Ladies and gentlemen it took me weeks before I could figure this one out and it wasn’t until I had a friend over that all was revealed. She looked at the picture (I was hoping inspiration would strike) when she commented, “Why do they have a checkerboard?” Checkerboard? Checkerboard! I rushed over to my daughter’s easy book collection and there it was. The trick is in the details. You have to take into account the little things, like the banjo, the Chinese lantern, the lollipop, and the toy boat floating on the sea. I’m not going to spoil it for you. I’ll just say that this is from a very famous work for children that many people know, but few would put together with this image. And to David Soman, wow! It takes guts to put something that obscure, and clearly personal, in your own book. He’ll be fielding questions about what this is from for the rest of his natural born days. There may be other in-jokes in this book of course (is the boat the “Ursusula K.” an oblique nod to Ursula K. Le Guin?) but some secrets are meant to stay unknown.
They’ve always said that Soman co-created the Ladybug Girl books with his wife, so there’s no way of knowing where her contributions started and his ended. I knew that his art was great, but how would his writing fare? “Three Bears in a Boat” is an odd little thing in many ways. It’s only 40 pages but feels somehow like a longer, more epic story. The writing itself also gets the job done. It culls down the tale to the most essential elements, which is no easy task when you’re writing an epic adventure on the high seas. And somehow, even with his limited wordplay, Soman ably brings across the personalities of his three little heroes. They don’t say much but what they do say counts.
He’s also pulled a reverse Where the Wild Things Are on us. You remember how at the end of Wild Things” the line about the dinner is “and it was still hot”? Well here the little bears do get a warm supper, but alongside the cozy image of their home at night, the lights all lit, smoke emanating from their chimney while their boat sits on the land and the full moon gleams down is the line “But they didn’t get any dessert.” I love the succinctness of this. In fact, when you sit down and look at the story, the comparisons to Wild Things don’t stop there. Max too sails away “for a year and a day” while the three little bears sail “on farther than they had ever gone before”. But while Max had only his own singular wits to rely upon, these three bears have one another, even if it leads to the occasional quarrel.
Even if a child has never set so much as a sandy toe in the waters of a lake, river, or ocean, there’s something compelling in Soman’s voyage by sea. The thrill of setting out on your own with friends/siblings along for company is inherently enticing. Plug in adventure and an escape from parental oversight and you’ve got yourself a snazzy little number. David Soman isn’t afraid to get pretty. His ocean scenes are some of the best I’ve ever seen in a picture book, and his story holds up in the end. If you’re looking for a gift book, a bedtime book, or just something uniquely attractive to the eye, seek ye just three little bears. Charm incarnate.
On shelves May 20th.
Source: F&G sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- The Maggie B by Irene Haas
- Snook Alone by Marilyn Nelson
- Tsunami by Kimiko Kajikawa
Misc: A behind-the-scenes look into Mr. Soman’s life.