Monday, May 19, 2008


THE SEA SERPENT AND ME by Dashka Slater, illustrated by Catia Chien (Houghton Mifflin)
Every now and then there comes a book so delightful, so lyrical, that we are reminded why children's books are art and not just product. This is one of those books. When a little girl takes a bath, a friendly little sea serpent emerges from a drop of water from the faucet. He tells her exciting and beautiful stories of the deep blue sea, "where manta rays swim like dancing blankets and there are crabs with antlers and fish shaped like guitars." She promises to return him to the sea when it stops raining, but meanwhile, he is growing at a rate a la Helen Palmer's A FISH OUT OF WATER. Still, the girl frets over the day she will have to release him, but when they reach the shore, it is the sea serpent who is reticent. Can she find the words encouraging enough to help him become brave enough to enjoy his own freedom?

Oh my goodness, this book is a bit of a miracle, awash in lovely watercolor scenes with the jubilance of Jean Jacques Sempé but with broader strokes and the abandon that more closely mirrors the imaginative world of children. Every single page is different and interesting, bravely traversing double-page spreads of the deepest fathoms and intimate frames that make both the girl (wearing a ducky buoy as she leans over a fish tank) and the serpent the reader's friends. Though the serpent is a monster of sorts, he is always wide-eyed, smiling and never fearsome. Best of all, the visual beauty of this book is matched by its subtle and meaningful content about growing pains, packing an emotional punch along the lines of Munsch's LOVE YOU FOREVER but without the ambiguous adult skeeviness. This would be a brilliant book to share with a child starting school or any other great adventure, and will fortify the adult reader as well to be brave as the ones we love embark on something new. Darling, deep and dear, this is the sort of book that children will remember for years, with images that wend their way into the landscape of dreams. (4 and up)

Also of interest:
While we have our wet suits on, how about another underwater book that's bound to make a splash:
MANFISH: A STORY OF JACQUES COUSTEAU by Jennifer Berne, illustrated by Éric Puybaret (Chronicle) As a boy, Jacques Cousteau fantasized what it would be like to breathe beneath water. Later in life, all things converge as he combined his love of film and his amazing invention of the aqualung to show the world
the undersea worth exploring...and worth saving. Smooth, flat art style against glossy paper goes far to capture the silky quiet of the sea, and the brilliant vertical fold-out that allows the reader to virtually and visually dive down into the depths of the ocean is a surprise. An inspiring life story clearly told for young readers across the grade levels, this beautiful book is a real catch. It appears that picture book biography remains the big fish in the sea of children's literature!

Also all new, tried-and-true and all wet:
ALISTAIR AND KIP'S GREAT ADVENTURE! by John Segal (McElderberry Books), a very simple story of two buddies who brave the waves and get a whale of a ride (nicely paired with William Steig's classic AMOS AND BORIS, and THE CASTAWAY PIRATES: A POP-UP TALE OF BAD LUCK, SHARP TEETH AND STINKY TOES by Ray Marshall and Wilson Swain (Chronicle), a wild, whirling rhyme for kids who just can't get enough of that pirate stuff. And also, don't forget the older, undersung little read-aloud treasure, SEA-CAT AND DRAGON KING by Angela Carter, illustrated by Eva Tatcheva (Bloomsbury), the whimsical tale of a cat who has to create a sweater for a kind but homely ruler beneath the waves; beautiful language, cunning line drawings and a creative conflict make this story sparkle. There, now you have plenty of material for a beach-blanket read-aloud in your library...or in your lap!

Shop with Esme
Oooo boy, this is dangerous shopping news, an auction of children's literature treasures from one of my favorite independent booksellers in the whole world. Visit the Debt Depletion Store within the next few days to bid on treasures like an original Max-the-bunny painting by Rosemary Wells, a Lily drawing from Kevin Henkes, a signed assemblage and art piece by Brian Selznick (who won the Caldecott for THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET), Arthur Geisert's complete hand-printed dummy for OINK OINK (heart be still! Out of my league, but my favorite of the bunch!), and a myriad of autographed and original collectibles from folks like Chris Raschka, Daniel Pinkwater, Jules Feiffer, Molly Bang, Jon Scieszka, David Small, Ed Emberley, Jack Gantos, and best of all, yours truly! ;-) Please check out my fairy godmother set which includes an audio and autographed print version of DIARY OF A FAIRY GODMOTHER, a magic wand and three bona fide wishes plus an autographed book and an unabridged CD; also available is the complete autographed set oof SAHARA SPECIAL and companion novel VIVE LA PARIS, ahem, a perfect end-of-year gift for a middle-grade teacher, if I do say so myself.

Friends! Librarians! SCBWI members! Booklovers all! Please spread the word about this unique auction being hosted by my friends at Reading Reptile in honor of their efforts to stay in business and continue serving children and families for coming up on twenty years! I have a bit of a girl-crush on owner Deb, who is one of the best artists in the universe in her own rite...check out my visit to see what I'm talking about! Truly this is an extraordinary and exceptional place in the universe, and Deb and Pete are truly good people who are beautiful parents and generous spirits. They support all of us through their good work and now they deserve our support, so bid early and bid often!

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.


Kelly said...

Esme: There is something about this sentence--"Every now and then there comes a book so delightful, so lyrical, that we are reminded why children's books are art and not just product"--that reminds me why I read and review children's books. Perfect. Thank you :)

Z-Kids said...

Thanks for pointing us to the auction! Too bad I'm a starving artist and can't join in on the pursuit of other wonderful artists' work! We would so totally love that Geisert treasure!

Thanks too for your comments on the kids' blog -- glad you visited! I was introduced to you via the "JustOneMoreBook" podcast a while back -- it was a great interview.

All best,
Z-Kids' Dad

Unknown said...

You might enjoy this Mr. Media podcast interview with cartoonist Jules Feiffer, who talks about the new collection of his comic strips from the Village Voice, getting his start with Will Eisner on The Spirit, his plays (Little Murders), his movies (Carnal Knowledge, Popeye), the Disney musical adaptation of The Man in the Ceiling, and his forthcoming memoirs.

Burgin Streetman said...

Sempé is my fave. You've read Mr. Summer's Story no?... if I ever made a movie, that would be the one.

Anonymous said...

hey... I gave you a shout out on Design Mom today.

Pop over and check it out!

Vanessa said...

She is right (from design mom) you do have a wonderful blog. I have loved children's books my whole life and I am glad now I know of your blog!
vanessa from

Anonymous said...

Esme, I love your books and just discovered your websites. I wonder if you could answer a children's book question that's been driving me crazy. I'm trying to remember the name of a book about a little girl who wears different dresses that are the same color as the food she is eating. I'm picturing Tomie de Paola's illustrations in my head, but have searched his books and can't find it. Thanks for your help!

Esme Raji Codell said...

Hi, Anonymous...I wonder if you are thinking of ON MARKET STREET by Arnold Lobel, illustrated by Anita Lobel, or maybe WHO SAID RED by Mary Serfoso, illustrated by Keiko Narahashi? If neither of these is correct, try the wonderful WHAT'S THAT BOOK service at
Let us know when you find it...sounds like fun!

Good luck, and happy reading!

Karen said...

Thank you for these reviews -- I'm going to check our library for Manfish and The Sea Serpent and Me!


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