Monday, September 24, 2012

Library Find - Can You Hear the Sea?

The other day, I was headed back to my work area when something on a cart caught my eye. I should mention, in case you don't already know it, that I am privileged to work at the administrative center for a regional library system. The building I work in houses not only all the staff who support our system, but also shelves containing older titles and materials that are in transit to one of our library branches. Books are coming in and going out literally all day long. It is a bibliophile's dream and nightmare all at the same time. Small wonder my library card gets such a workout.

Anyway, right off I recognized the book in question as being illustrated by Ken Wilson-Max. Eons ago, before Sprout came into our family, our children's librarian recommended some titles she thought we might like (and she was spot on, by the way). Among them were Karen Baicker's I Can Do It Too! and You Can Do It Too!, both illustrated by Wilson-Max. Sprout loved both of these books from the first time we read them and they have been frequent revisits since. This new title, Can You Hear the Sea?, written by Judy Cumberbatch, appealed to me right off (don't let anyone tell you we don't judge books by the cover, we all do it). I was pretty sure Sprout would like it, and -- no surprise here -- he firmly declared it "really just good, Mama!"

The story is set in an unnamed country in West Africa but the author's bio notes that she grew up in Ghana so it's not too much of a leap to think it was set there. The narrative explores the relationship between Sarah and her beloved grandfather. On a Saturday before he leaves, Grandpa gives Sarah a beautiful seashell; he tells her to hold it to her ear and listen closely, for she will hear the sea. Though Sarah knows that Grandpa would never lie to her, she can't hear the sound, no matter how hard she tries. Instead, each day of the week, Sarah only hears the sounds of the everyday world around her - the drums in church on Sunday, the monkeys in the trees on Wednesday, the honking taxis on Friday. But then Grandpa returns and shows Sarah just how to listen. And suddenly there it is, the sound of the waves on the shore and the roaring, rushing power of the ocean.

What I love about this simple story is all the layers it incorporates. There are the building blocks of learning, like the progression of the week which teaches about sequences and the passing of time. There are the vivid colors and multilayered illustrations, which stimulate young readers' senses. And then there is the emotional component, in which Sarah knows she should trust her grandfather but then begins to doubt his word. In the end, Sarah's trust is restored as she learns to listen, just as her Grandpa has instructed her. This reaffirms the bond between the two, and provides a gently reassuring ending to this sweet story.

Though I wish there were a few more cultural details - a further development of the setting and the use of culturally correct names or language terms - this is a solidly written and gorgeously illustrated story that will engage any child. Use with other West African stories like Jane Kurtz's In the Small, Small Night or Penda Diakite's I Lost My Tooth in Africa to build a unit about this diverse region of Africa.

Can You Hear the Sea? by Judy Cumberbatch, published by Bloomsbury
Ages 2-6
Source: Library
Sample: "On Monday, Sarah listened to her shell by the river as she and Grandma did the washing. But what she heard was. . . water splashing, Grandma beating out the sheets, and the clothes flip-flapping in the wind."

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