Jonathan and the Big Blue Boat, by 2011 Caldecott Medal Winner Philip C. Stead, is a delight from start to finish. It's a tongue-in-cheek, straight-up adventure, with no moral, and gorgeous illustrations. Young Jonathan is fascinated with a big, blue boat that lies abandoned in the harbor. When Jonathan loses his best friend, a stuffed bear named Frederick, he takes the big, blue boat, and sets out an a round the world quest. Along the way, he takes on an assorted crew, including a circus elephant, and has a variety of adventures. He never does go home. His adventures are never revealed to be a dream. It's just a fun, over-the-top story.
My favorite part, though I had to read it twice to be sure of what I was seeing, is on the second page.
"One afternoon Jonathan's parents announced, "You're getting too old for a stuffed animal. So we traded your bear for a toaster."
"Oh, no!" cried Jonathan. Frederick was his best friend.
"Toasters really are useful," they added.
I love that "toasters really are useful". (Side note: perhaps this book should be paired with Mary Had a Little Lamp by Jack Lechner).
Stead also uses a nice cumulative repeating refrain, between Jonathan's adventures. Like this:
"And that is how Jonathan and a mountain goat came to sail the sea on a Big Blue Boat."
"And that is how Jonathan, a mountain goat, and a circus elephant came to sail the sea on a Big Blue Boat."
I generally find it tedious when an entire book is like that, but Stead uses this device just enough to lend reassuring predictability, but not so much that kids will tire of it.
Jonathan and the Big Blue Boat is fun to read aloud, with a descriptive vocabulary, and fun sounds. There's a passage that describes the sounds that the goat and elephant make while sleeping. Words like "ooooOHaaaah" use graded fonts, to rise up in the middle, as the text should be read. It's hard to capture in a text-based review, but sure to please kids during bedtime read-aloud sessions. The pages alternate between relatively text-heavy recountings of incidents (like an encounter with pirates) and the brief refrains about traveling on the boat. I like this variation, and think that it keeps the book interesting for kids and adults.
Stead's illustrations are unique and eye-catching, a mix of detailed collage, pen and ink, and acrylic paints. His collages use a mix of documents, like old maps, stamps, postcards, navigation logs, encyclopedia entries, news articles, and even hand-written vocabulary sheets. A curious reader could spend quite a lot of time examining these, though they are just background, not needed to follow the story. They all fit in well with the theme of world travel, however, and with a certain old-fashioned feel to the story.
The drawings of Jonathan and his friends, and the big blue boat, are not incredibly detailed (which works, because they have to fit in with a quite complex background). But Jonathan is quite scrappy, and the elephant is particularly appealing. There's an adventurous tone to the pictures, My favorite is one of Jonathan and the goat riding the elephant away from the circus.
Jonathan and the Big Blue Boat is a delightful romp, with eye-catching illustrations, and enough detail to stand up to repeat study. That the text also flows well for read-aloud is a bonus. Highly recommended for home or library use.
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press (@MacKidsBooks)
Publication Date: June 7, 2010
Source of Book: Library copy
Nominated for 2011 Cybils in Fiction Picture Books by: Susan Thomsen
© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).