One-Minute Book Reviews

January 22, 2007

Review of 2007 Caldecott Winner: David Wiesner’s ‘Flotsam’

Filed under: Book Awards Reality Check,Caldecott Medals,Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:10 pm

Flotsam. By David Wiesner. Houghton Mifflin/Clarion, 32 pp., $17.95. Ages 3 and up.

By Janice Harayda

David Wiesner won the 2007 Caldecott Medal today for an eloquent, wordless picture book that encourages children to find the magic in everyday life. Flotsam tells the story of a boy who finds an underwater camera that washes up on a beach at the New Jersey shore, where the artist spent summers as a child. (The book doesn’t name the location but shows a beach tag reading “LBI” that, along with other visual references, situates the story clearly on Long Beach Island.) Wiesner’s young hero rushes to have the film developed and finds that it reveals a fantasy world of remarkable images, beautifully rendered in lush watercolors — a red wind-up fish, an undersea flying saucer full of miniature aliens, a starfish carrying a mountain Atlas-like on its back. The boy also sees photos of children from other countries and times, including one that appears to show the Jersey shore at the turn-of-the-century (a tribute to the artist’s great-grandparents?).

After taking a photo of himself, Wiesner’s hero throws the camera back into the ocean, where it takes another fantastic journey before being found on the last page by a young girl in a tropical realm where nobody needs a beach tag. As in his wordless picture book Tuesday, Wiesner invites children (and their elders) to make up their stories to go with his images. And he provides material rich enough to captivate a variety of ages. Toddlers and younger preschoolers may enjoy simply looking at the vibrant images and pointing to creatures they recognize while adults fill in the story. Older preschoolers and young school-age children may want to make up their own tales to explain, for example, how an octopus came to be sitting on underwater armchair. (They get help from clues such as an overturned “Moving and Storage” van also resting on the bottom of the sea.) Throughout Flotsam, shifting perspectives encourage children to see the world from many angles and, above all, to find the extraordinary in ordinary life.

Best line/Picture: One that shows Wiesner’s witty use of detail: The fringe on a sofa and ottoman provide a subtle visual echo of the tentacles of an octopus sitting on an armchair.

Worst line/picture: None.

Recommended … without reservations.

Published: October 2006.


Furthermore: Wiesner received earlier Caldecott Medals for Tuesday and The Three Pigs. His Sector 7 and Free Fall were Caldecott Honor books. If you found this review of Flotsam helpful, you may also want to read the review of The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo, who won the Newbery Medal for The Tale of Despereaux. The review was posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on January 27, 2007, and is archived in the Children’s Books category.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

One-Minute Book Reviews is an indepdendent literary blog created by Janice Harayda, who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. A new review of a book for children or teenagers appears every Saturday on this site.

November 18, 2006

Emily Arnold McCully’s Wild West Thanksgiving Story for Children

A Caldecott Medalist casts Butch Cassidy as a Victorian-era Robin Hood

An Outlaw Thanksgiving. By Emily Arnold McCully. Dial, 32 pp., $15.99. Ages 4–8.

A few days ago, I stopped by a good suburban library to see which children’s books the staff was recommending this week besides Squanto, Friend of the Pilgrims, that perennial dish of cranberry sauce on school reading lists. A librarian handed me An Outlaw Thanksgiving by Emily Arnold McCully, who won the Caldecott Medal for Mirette on the High Wire. No surprises there. Librarians are always promoting books by American Library Association award-winners.

The surprise came when I went to to see if there was a paperback edition and found, along with the expected rave from a librarian, a couple of attacks by parents on the poor moral “value systems” of the book. Let’s try to sort out the clashing views of this tale, which was inspired by a real holiday meal in Brown’s Hole, Utah, in the 1890s.

McCully casts bank robber Robert LeRoy Parker — alias Butch Cassidy — as a Victorian Robin Hood in this story of a young girl’s cross-country trip by rail. When a blizzard stops their train, Clara and her mother must have Thanksgiving dinner with strangers, including the man played by Paul Newman in the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Clara recognizes Butch from a “Wanted” poster she has seen. But she doesn’t turn him in, despite several opportunities, because she’s heard that he is good-hearted: “Gives some of what he steals to needy folks.” Clara also thinks her mother would “faint dead away” if she did. It doesn’t increase her motivation to turn informer when Butch, realizing that she recognizes him, gives her a silver dollar that could be construed as hush money.

You can see why some parents are furious. They’ve warned their children not to take candy or other bribes from “bad people” and to “tell an adult” right away if this happens. Then a Caldecott Medalist comes along and portrays sympathetically a girl who looks the other way when face-to-face with criminal. And another aspect of McCully’s tale might irk some parents: This is one of those books in which the child is smarter — or at least braver — than her parent. Clara isn’t intimidated by Butch, but believes her mother would be.

But the librarians who like this book have a point, too. As usual, McCully uses lush watercolors to tell a dramatic story. Something is always rushing forward – a train, a horse-drawn wagon, travelers at a railway station. Many people see watercolors, the neglected stepchild of painting, as a relatively static medium best suited landscapes or still lifes. McCully shows how dynamic the form can be in the right hands.

So this book is a judgment call for parents. It may give children at the younger end of its age range ideas that conflict with what they have learned at home. But it could give parents of older ones a way to test whether their children been paying attention to all those lessons about “bad people.” What should Clara have done when she recognized Butch? The question could launch a fascinating intergenerational conversation after Thanksgiving Dinner.

Best line: McCully includes an afterword about Butch Cassidy and the Old West that has colorful facts such as this one: “Snow was a problem for six or seven months of the year on the prairie. Passengers could perish in a blizzard. ‘Snowbucker’ plows rammed into drifts at 65 miles per hour.”

Worst line: After Clara arrives in Omaha: “Her mother hurried into the station to freshen up.” The euphemism “freshen up” sounds odd in context, if not anachronistic. And why did only the mother and not Clara need to use the bathroom after a long trip?

Recommended if … your children are old enough not to take the heroine’s behavior as a model for how to act when a stranger offers a bribe.

Published: 1998 (Dial hardcover), 2000 (Picture Puffins edition. For information on McCully

Posted by Janice Harayda
© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

One-Minute Book Reviews is an independent literary blog created by Janice Harayda, an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor and critic for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. Please visit to learn more about her comic novels, The Accidental Bride (St. Martin’s, 1999) and Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004).


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