Every small publisher needs a staple. Something to keep them going through hard times. Years ago Sleeping Bear Press hit on the notion of writing books with the [letter] is for [word] format and they’ve kept up this abecedarian staple ever since. These are books that are fairly easy to dismiss, sight unseen. You assume you know what to expect. Never mind that they’ve a range of different subjects, authors, and illustrators. For the picture book snob, one glance at the title and you’re immediately dismissive. You think you know what to expect. And of course by “you” I really mean “me”. It was the fact that S is for Sea Glass was written by Richard Michelson that gave me pause. No fly-by-night poet he, I sat down with the book and was happy to find that my expectations weren’t just met but greatly exceeded. Chalk that up to my own personal prejudices then. In this book Michelson and artist Doris Ettlinger gracefully sit back and present to us a most thoughtful, meditative picture book on summer and sea and the relationship between the two. Absolutely lovely and original, this is a summer book of poetry worth remembering and revisiting year after year after year.
“A is for Angel” begins the book. Open it and here you’ll see a girl on her back in the sand. She swings her arms and legs up and down “Like I’m opening and closing a fairy-tale gate” creating sand angels behind her. Welcome to summer. To beaches and tides and those elements of the season a kid can’t wait to experience. Through poetry, Richard Michelson brings to life the little details that make a summer come alive. From doomed sand castles to morally superior seagulls to the child that dreams of someday living in a lighthouse so they’d never have to leave, Michelson places a good, firm finger on the pulse of the warmer months. Artist Doris Ettlinger accompanies him and brings to life not just the obvious moments of summertime but some of the softer more esoteric feelings conjured up by Michelson’s words. The result is a book that will almost smell to you of brine and surf, even in the coldest, frozen depths of the winter.
What is the moment when a book flips that switch in your brain from “like” to “love”? It’s different for everyone. For some it might be a word or a phrase. For others a haunting image or illustration that conjures up a personal memory. In the case of S is for Sea Glass it was the poem “H is for Horizon”. It’s not out-and-out saying you need to contemplate the nature of infinity but it might well be suggesting it. After all, is there any point on the beach so wrought with possibility and promise? As Michelson writes, “If I travel the world or stay here on this beach, / The horizon will always be just beyond reach. / But it’s real as my dreams and it’s always nearby – / That magical line where the sea meets the sky.” Inculcating a kid in poetry that’s fun because the language is fun is as easy as the next Shel Silverstein poem. Inculcating a kid in poetry that’s fun because it expands your horizons (pun intended) and lets your mind wander free is much harder. Michelson manages it here.
The nice thing about the poems is that they aren’t the usual beach fare. Sure you’ll find the standard “O is for Ocean” or “W is for Wave” but Michelson has an impish quality to his selections. “E is for Empty Shells” isn’t just about the shells you find on the beach but also the fact that their innards have been consumed by YOU much of the time. “I is for Ice” isn’t about the cubes in a glass on a hot day but rather the strange and startling beauty of a beach in the blustery depths of winter. Some of the poems will take some practice to read aloud, so parents be ready. “B is for Boardwalk” for example eschews the regular ABAB rhyme scheme for something a little more visually exciting. “D is for Dog” in contrast contains both hard and soft rhymes. There are poems with AABB rhymes and even haikus like the one in “P is for Pail”. Michelson doesn’t distinguish or label the different types of poetry found here, so in terms of curricular ties that feels like a lost opportunity.
It’s always interesting to watch what a kid latches onto in a book like this. My 3-year-old has recently been on a beach books kick. We’d already exhausted Splash, Anna Hibiscus, Ladybug Girl at the Beach, Scaredy Squirrel at the Beach and many others when we came across S is for Sea Glass. My daughter enjoyed the poems, treating each one with equal interest, but the poem she kept going back to and appeared to be haunted by was “Q is for Quiet”. I suspect this may have a lot to do with the image in that book which also appears on the back cover. In it, a girl sleeps, half her hair dark, the other silver white in the moonlight. As she dreams a shoal of fish swim about her across the star strewn sky. Many’s the time we’ve read the book and just come to a dead stop at Q. No need to go further. She gets everything she needs out of this poem alone.
Credit where credit is due to artist Doris Ettlinger then. I was aware of Ms. Ettlinger’s work thanks to books like The Orange Shoes (it tends to come up when patrons want picture books on class distinctions) and other books in the Sleeping Bear Press series. The sea appears to be particularly inspirational to Ms. Ettlinger, though. A strictly representational illustrator most of the time, here her watercolors find much to enjoy in the roaring pounding surf, the ice choked chill of a wintertime beach jaunt, the infinity of the deepest ocean, and that gray/brown gloomy beauty of a rained out beach. The “R is for Rain” sequence in particular is one of her loveliest. Credit too to “Y is for Year-Rounders” where seaside locals celebrate a town empty of tourists in the fall. In her version, Ettlinger conjures up a small town beach resort street at the end of the day, four family members and their dog just tiny black silhouettes against the blazing yellow of a setting sun.
When the weather warms and the leaves reappear on the trees, then it will be the time for families to pluck S is for Sea Glass from the topmost shelves of their bookcases for multiple reads by the seashore. We all do that, right? Keep our seasonal books apart from one another so that when the right time of year appears we’ve books ah-plenty to refer to? Well, if you haven’t before I recommend you start now with this one. Parents buy summery beach titles for their kids regardless of the quality. All the more reason the care and attention paid to “S is for Sea Glass” impresses. There are books a parent does not wish to read 100 times over to their offspring and there are books they wish they could read even more. This book falls into the latter category. A treat for eye and ear alike.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy given by author for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Splash, Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke, ill. Lauren Tobia
- Ladybug Girl Goes to the Beach by Jackie Davis and David Soman
- Scaredy Squirrel at the Beach by Melanie Watt
Other Blog Reviews:
- Jama’s Alphabet Soup (featuring the greatest flip-flop cookies you’ve ever seen)
- Radio, Rhythm & Rhyme
- Feathered Quill Book Reviews
- Bookish Ambition
- Writing and Ruminating
Misc: A discussion with Michelson about the book on MassLive.
Videos: A peek inside.