Saturday, July 17, 2010

No Boats or Sailing or Fishing, with an Exception for William Steig

This is curious. For as long as I can remember I've had what you might call a complete lack of interest in reading about anything to do with boats, or sailing, or fishing, or the like. Maybe the term "lack of interest" isn't quite right. If I'm reading something and I discover that it happens to be set on a boat or that sailing or something is involved, I find that I am instantly not interested and have to stop reading. There's no longer even a question about finishing it. I just sigh and think, "Well, this might be a great story, but I'll never know." I'd like to think that maybe this has something to do with reading too much John McPhee, but really I don't have an explanation for it, and so I have simply accepted this admitted failing of mine. I can't say this exactly translates into real life. I love water and swimming and don't even mind boats. But recently my younger daughter was reading aloud to me from Stuart Little, one of the loveliest children's books of all time, and when she got to the sailboat race in Central Park, I became absolutely antsy for her to finish it. I was tempted to ask if she'd like to skip that chapter, but for some reason she found the description of the boat race "exciting" even with its constant repetition of the terms "fore" and "aft" and all the rest of that.

But then this brings me to one of the most perfect children's books ever written and nearly all of it is set, if not on a boat, at least mostly in the water. This would be Amos & Boris by William Steig.

Now in the years and years that I spent reading picture books to my girls, I often made my preferences pretty clear, which resulted in statements like, "Not Frances again, Mommy!" or "No, I'm sorry, I refuse to read from the Encyclopedia of Horses one more time." But we could all always agree on William Steig. First of all, if you've read anything by William Steig you pretty much have to love him. His books have lines like, "Spinky had to cover his ears to avoid listening to this malarky" and "You worm, you odoriferous wretch!" They are always hilarious like this, but also beautiful at the same time. His characters are never afraid to show their unadulterated love for each other.

So Amos & Boris. Amos, a mouse, builds a boat to explore the ocean. He sets off thrillingly and it is only because of his sheer joy at looking at the overwhelming beauty of the night sky that he accidentally rolls off his boat, which floats away forever. Now Amos is swimming desperately, thinking all sorts of awful questions about drowning, when Boris, a whale, appears and saves Amos's life. "Holy clam and cuttlefish!" exclaims Boris upon seeing Amos, which is exactly the sort of thing a whale would say. Boris is on his way to the Ivory Coast to attend a meeting of whales from all the seven seas (a detail that I have always loved for some reason) but agrees to bring Amos home. Amos and Boris become fast friends: "They told each other about their lives, their ambitions." Of course, parting is ultimately heartbreaking, and they promise to be friends forever. But then "many years after the incidents just described" a terrible hurricane flings Boris out of the ocean and onto shore right near Amos's home. Amos comes to the beach and sees Boris lying on the shore and "I don't have to tell you how these old friends felt at meeting again in this desperate situation." Quick-thinking Amos rushes off and gets two elephants to roll Boris back into the ocean. Boris is saved! Then in tears, the two friends look at each other: "They knew they might never meet again. They knew they would never forget each other." I mean, really, it doesn't get much better than this.

And so, because of the great William Steig, I have read through what you might call a "boating story" over and over again. However, I have a completely legitimate excuse never to read Moby Dick.

1 comment:

bridgett said...

How about "Where the Wild Things Are"? Or is Max in the boat so briefly as to not count as a boat story?