July 24, 2015
This Specific Ocean by Kyo Maclear and Katty Maurey
The first thing I ever read by Kyo Maclear was The Letter Opener, a novel, which I loved, and so it’s taken some time to get my mind around the idea of her as a picture book author. Even though the books themselves were very good—the brilliant Spork, and the strange and beautiful Virginia Wolf, and the even-stranger Mr Flux that has grown on us so much that I routinely pick it up and read for comfort in times of anxiety (“Sometimes change is just change”). I should have twigged to something with the amazing Julia, Child, her collaboration with one of my favourite illustrators, Julie Morstad. But no, I thought. These were just ones-0f-a-kind. Brief flourishes of excellence. No picture book writer could keep producing work that is every time so different, so smart in its concept, original and singular—each book its own perfect world. But Kyo Maclear does, and it’s so remarkable. I’m convinced finally as this fall she has two extraordinary releases, The Good Little Book, illustrated by Marian Arbona, and this one, The Specific Ocean, with Katty Maurey.
Maclear has been fortunate in her picture book career to work with some of Canada’s best illustrators, Isabelle Arsenault and Morstad among them, ensuring that her books have considerable visual appeal. Indeed, when the books have won awards, it has tended to be for their illustrations, and my own focus on her book’s images has contributed to my reluctance to give Maclear full credit for her picture book prowess, though I have long been a huge fan of her work. But with her two most recent books—each so different in illustrations and design, and so different too from her previous works—I’ve really finally come on board. In all her stunning books with their own particular style, Maclear herself is the common denominator. And she’s come far enough in her career that we can start to marvel at her oeuvre.
But, as the title suggests, it’s time to get specific, and Maclear’s work is so various that specifics are the most interesting way to discuss it. The Specific Ocean is about a young girl whose family is flying across the country for their summer vacation, but the girl doesn’t want to go with them. She wants to stay in the city and play with her friends, so when they finally do arrive at their destination beside the sea, she is resolute in her misery and refuses to enjoy herself.
It’s the ocean that finally sways her though, its formidable coldness, the spots of warmth: “We float on our backs, and the wind blows ripples across the water’s surface, and those ripples grow into waves that life us up and up.” She begins exploring the wonders of the beach, birds and shells and tide-rolls. “When the sun comes out, we sit on the rocks and watch the waves. Shine, shimmer. gleam, glow. It makes me dizzy to imagine where the sea ends. The ocean is so big that it makes every thought and worry I have shrink and scatter.”
As with all of Maclear’s books, complex ideas are presented through scenarios with which a young reader would be familiar. The effect is subtle—my daughter would not notice that she’s reading anything but a story about a girl who travels to the seaside. But she might notice that this is very different than other books about trips to the seaside. In a deceptively simple narrative package, Maclear is addressing issues of anxiety, of anger, of wonder, of emotions, of the power and knowledge that comes with growing and learning and changing one’s mind.
The girl learns to embrace the ocean, but with that comes a new anxiety. For how does one embrace an ocean after all? With something so huge, how do we wrap our arms around it? How do we love things that are much too big to hold? The girl comes up with scenarios involving putting the ocean in a bowl, carrying part of it home with her. But her wise older brother counsels her otherwise: “[he] says if I do that, the ocean will be less. He says the ocean may be big, but it isn’t endless.”
By the end of the vacation, the girl doesn’t want to go home—of course! Life itself being a tension between two pulls/poles. But she becomes reconciled with her departure by an awareness that the wildness of the ocean, its deep and dark mysteries and lack of containment, are most essential to what she loves about it. And that this same spirit and complexity she carries within herself: “Calm. Blue. Ruffled. Gray. Playful. Green. Mysterious. Black. Foggy. Silver. Roaring. White.”
Which means she’s not leaving it behind at all.