Calling all mothers! How do you let go? And when is the right time? And how much slack is allowable, especially when the world looks scarier than usual, as it does these days? Wave by Suzy Lee is about all these things. It is also about a day at the beach.
We were supposed to spend Easter at the Gulf of Mexico. The condo cancelled our reservation when the pandemic hit, and then we thought we might try to go this summer. Then the virus spiked in our area. Maybe we’ll try again this fall? Maybe next year?
I grew up going to the beach every summer with my family, and the first illustration, on the title page, that shows the little girl running with delight toward the waves might as well be little me. I could not wait to get my toes in the sand and my body in the waves. I never once considered my own safety. But my mother did.
The wonderful thing about a wordless picture book like this one is it needs no translation. Even so, there are fourteen versions of Wave, I suppose for the different titles. The story has four characters: a girl, a mother, a wave, and a flock of sea gulls. The birds are a visual chorus, enhancing every action and emotion the girl experiences. The mother is mostly off-screen. In fact, the first time I read the book I didn’t even notice her. Which I think is an apt metaphor for motherhood: When we’re doing our jobs well, we seem to recede. But we’re still there.
The titular wave is not dangerous. The girl ventures out just far enough to splash and kick and even taunt the wave. But this wave is not out to get her. It just wants to play. And when someone sticks out their tongue at you, well, you can’t let that pass. The wave suddenly grows huge, covering two entire pages, then douses the girl.
But the wave does not leave the girl wet and alone. It deposits dozens of shells, perhaps as an apology for the dousing. This is the moment the book reminds us the mother is there. The girl turns away from the wave and holds up a starfish in one hand and a conch shell in the other, so her mother can see. All we see of the mother is the corner of her beach umbrella. But she is there. She’s been there the whole time, giving her daughter a chance to be brave.
Sometimes braveness means getting wet. Sometimes bravery yields unexpected shells.
Author and illustrator Suzy Lee is from Seoul, South Korea, and studied painting both there and in London. If you go to her website, the illustration on the front page is an animated gif of the girl from this book sticking out her tongue. I can’t help but wonder what Suzy Lee’s mother thinks of her daughter adopting that image as her avatar. Maybe she thinks, Yep, that’s my girl! Part of letting go is letting your children be who they are.
I own a brief book by Catholic philosopher Dr. Peter Kreeft titled The Sea Within: Waves and the Meaning of All Things. It’s 100 pages of playful existentialism. The About the Author page says Kreeft is the author of over forty books, and “If you talk to him, however, Peter Kreeft will get the biggest gleam in his eye not about his books but about surfing.”
Now I want to know all about Kreeft’s experience with the sea. Did his mother teach him to surf? How old was he the first time she took him to the beach? Did he ever stick out his tongue at a big wave? Does the bravery required to surf encourage the bravery that questions ideas?
Who might this little girl from Wave grow up to be?
In the next-to-last picture the mother is ready to go. She stands with the umbrella and her shoes, watching the girl playing pat-a-cake with a wave puddle. As they leave the girl turns back to wave goodbye to the wave.
The final page shows us the wave’s own heart. All is blue and white swirl, as if the wave can’t help but live up to its name. Maybe it is waving too.
The next Children’s Book Club will meet Friday, August 14. We’ll read Sure As Sunrise: Stories of Bruh Rabbit & His Walkin’ Talkin’ Friends by Alice McGill, illustrated by Don Tate.
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“Megan Willome has captured the essence of crow in this delightful children’s collection. Not only do the poems introduce the reader to the unusual habits and nature of this bird, but also different forms of poetry as well.”
—Michelle Ortega, poet and children’s speech pathologist