A children’s book fictionalizes the plight of a garbage barge that couldn’t find a port
Here Comes the Garbage Barge! Story by Jonah Winter. Art by Chris Sickels of Red Nose Studio. Schwartz & Wade/Random House, 36 pp., $17.99. Ages 4 and up.
By Janice Harayda
When is a picture book full of trash but not trashy? One answer is: when it’s Here Comes the Garbage Barge!, a satirical morality tale based on the true story of a floating garbage barge that couldn’t find a port.
In the late 1980s, New York City regularly exported thousands of tons of trash a day that nearby landfills couldn’t accommodate. Trucks hauled much of the garbage to Pennsylvania and West Virginia, but barges carried some of it by sea to other places. In 1987, a barge headed south, heaped with trash from New York City and Islip, Long Island. Its intended port-of-call, a town in North Carolina, refused to allow it to unload. At least six states and Mexico and Belize eventually rejected its rotting cargo. After months at sea, the barge returned to New York and a legal battle that ended when a Brooklyn incinerator burned the garbage and sent its ashes to a landfill in Islip.
Jonah Winter turns this near-surrealistic episode into a lively story that plays fast-and-loose with facts on many levels, some acknowledged in an author’s note and some not. His techniques include exaggerating ethnic, regional, sexual and age-related stereotypes for comic effect. And he has drawn fire for an obviously Italian and mob-connected waste-hauler who says things like: “Here’s da deal: Brooklyn’s gonna take dat garbage and burn it. A judge told ’em dey had to.” (Yes, a gangster who apparently speaks in colons and says “da” and “dat” but not “dem.”) Winter also tries to jazz up his text with italics, exclamation points and capital letters when it needs stronger words.
But Chris Sickels has filled Here Comes the Garbage Barge! with amusing illustrations more inspired than the unexceptional writing. He created the pictures by sculpting human forms from polymer clay and baking them in a kitchen oven, then photographing them on intricate hand-built three-dimensional sets. This technique enables him to create characters who have agile faces with cavernous eye sockets and strong noses (one holds a clipped-on clothespin as the garbage rots) and jutting ears. The humans in many children’s books are cartoonish, but Sickels’s have the force of good caricature. And his garbage barge has a personality of its own, teeming found or created whimsy – a football, a red birdcage, a Rubik’s cube, a shopping cart, computer monitor.
The moral of Here Comes the Garbage Barge! might be stern enough to qualify as eco-propaganda, but the art reflects the spirit of an incident that once provided rich material for late-night comedians. On a back endpaper, Sickels shows the last words of the book on a hand-lettered sign attached to a buoy floating on an “ocean” made from blue drycleaners’ bags: “DON’T MAKE SO MUCH GARBAGE!!!”
Best line/picture: Many. But children may especially enjoy a picture of the Statue of Liberty holding her nose as the barge filled with rotting garbage returns to New York.
Worst line/picture: No. 1: A picture that says “Mexico: Land of Enchantment.” This is confusing. “Land of Enchantment” is the state slogan of New Mexico, not Mexico. No. 2: The cover and title page credit the art to Red Nose Studio, which Sickels runs. Sickels may have left off his name as an act of generosity toward a support staff, but his omission was confusing and unfair to readers, who have a right to know up front who illustrated the book. Many intelligent adults and children will look at the cover above and conclude wrongly that Here Comes the Garbage Barge! was written and illustrated by “Jonah Winter of Red Nose Studio.”
About the author and illustrator: Winter collaborated with his mother, the author and illustrator Jeanette Winter on Diego, a children’s biography of the artist Diego Rivera. He talks about his work in an interview in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Sickels tells how he created the art for Here Comes the Garbage Barge! in this YouTube video.
Furthermore: As of June 2010, Here Comes the Garbage Barge! was a School Library Journal blogger’s top pick for the 2011 Caldecott Medal. You’ll find background on the garbage barge in a New York Daily News story.
Published: February 2010
Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist and former vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle. She has been the book columnist for Glamour and book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.
© Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.