One way we dream about vacation, of course, is through the books we read. I purposely try to seek out stories for Sprout that come from all over the globe. I do that not just because we feel it's important to expose him to a range of cultures but also because we like to imagine ourselves visiting all these far-flung places. And armchair travel via picture books? Kind of the best bedtime adventure ever!
A recent literary trip we've been indulging in takes us to the Caribbean, to an island lush with palm trees, flowers and gorgeous birds everywhere. Island Baby is an older title by Holly Keller, one we were fortunate to discover -- where else? -- through our library. There's so much that's great about this book: its vivid, Caribbean-infused color palette, the simple illustrative style, and its themes of intergenerational relationships and helpfulness to others. It's the kind of book that sneaks up on you with its quiet grace, and that communicates deep truths in subtle ways.
Simon's grandfather runs a bird hospital on the little island where they live. Simon loves to help Pops with the birds; he's good at his jobs and he enjoys feeling like he's not only helping the birds but his beloved grandfather as well. Because of his knowledge, when Simon sees a young bird struggling in the water, waves pushing it against the rocks, Simon can't bring himself to just walk away. Fortunately Pops comes to the rescue with a net, and the two capture the little one and bring him to the hospital. Simon names the bird Baby, caring for his flamingo friend tenderly until at last it's time to set Baby free. It's not easy for Simon -- he can't imagine leaving his friend -- but the feeling of pride Simon takes away, as he watches a flock of flamingos take flight, eases the pain just enough.
There's an easy grace to this book that makes its impact that much more significant; Keller's sensitive understanding of a young child's complex feelings is evident in her prose. The first time we read this, we closed the cover and just sat for a moment, then Sprout asked to hear it again. And I suspect that's the sort of reaction that keeps this gem on the library shelf (you may have to look at a used bookstore to find your own copy). Because the books that make us think, about our relationship to one another as well as to the natural world, are the books that linger with us, don't you find?
We may have opened this book because we wanted to dream of beautiful islands, but we took away so much more than just an escape. At the end, as we mourn with Simon the loss of his friend, we also share his joy at a life saved and made whole. And that's a takeaway that makes this island dream even more magical.
Island Baby by Holly Keller, published by Greenwillow Books
First lines: "Pops poured a mug of juice for Simon and one for himself. Then they sat on the front steps without talking and watched the sea."
Bonus: an interview with Holly Keller from the Cooperative Children's Book Center
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