Reviewed in the United States on June 19, 2019
Grown-ups are problematic. Somehow, they’ve managed to work it so that they’re on all the review committees that determine the best books for kids. How is that fair? Tell me, can you think of any book committees that have an honorary child member? I’m not saying it’s impossible, I’m just saying it doesn’t happen all that often. I don’t need to spell out the problems with this kind of situation to you, because you know precisely what happens when a bunch of adults all come together to determine the “best” of anything. They’ll sit around eating chocolate, and then inevitably veer off and select the books that appeal to their particular (read: grown-up) sensibilities. This has happened to me personally more times than I can count. So much so, that I’ve had to begin to actively notice the kinds of books that I pour inadequate attention upon. For example, I have a hard time properly accepting and praising nonfiction and informational books for the youngest of readers. Apparently if it’s fiction I’m on board from the get-go, but nonfiction’s another bag entirely. But while I rail against them sometimes, this is actually why committees can be useful entities. Because even when I fail to notice the great early nonfiction books, I have co-workers who are capable of dragging my attention away from the shiny fiction to the extraordinary nonfiction. And “Hey, Water!” by Antoinette Portis is one of those extraordinary books. Appealing to older and younger readers alike, Portis has outdone herself with the book’s design and art. A book for everybody. After all, who doesn’t like water?
“Hey, water! I know you! You’re all around.” Our guide, a brown-skinned girl named Zoe, begins to list all the different ways you can encounter this essential resource. Whether it’s in your home, in large bodies of water, or as a teardrop falling from your eye, water is positively everywhere. Steam and fog. Snowmen and fish. Even in your own body! What’s the best thing to say after all of that? “Hey, water, thank you!” Backmatter includes in-depth explanations of water forms, the water cycle, different ways to best conserve water, and a small Bibliography of books to talk more about water, as well as some that contain hands-on water experiments.
I’m a little dense when it comes to good book design. But, like all other aspects of book creation, when it’s particularly well done it has a tendency to stand up and wait for you to take notice. I noticed. I noticed how the beginning of the book shows the water pouring down, then up, then down. I noticed the trickle morph effortlessly into a stream, then a river, with every page turn until the water poured all over the page (no border in sight) as an ocean. I even noticed how Portis’s perspective manages to slowly pull in, so that you go from lake to pool to puddle to dewdrop to tear. None of these choices are happenstance. Each one has been carefully considered and put into action using the artist’s brush and sumi ink (combined with digital coloring). I remember when Portis debuted years ago, back in 2006, with her remarkable “Not a Box” (which remains in print to this day). In those days she brought a simplicity of form to her books, along with some thick black lines. Since that time her range has expanded. She begins this book with similar lines, but then as you read you come across mist and fog. You see when she made the decision to make the snowflakes white balls on a blue background or blue balls on a white background. And look at how she made the dewdrop ever so slightly translucent, all with her brushwork. A book that has had care and time poured into its pages exudes that love when you read it. There is not a drop of paint or a flick of a brush out of place here.
One of my colleagues is particularly enthused by science books for kids. It was she who pointed out to me that while the art of this book is great, it’s the text that gives it that little extra oomph, allowing it to stand heads and shoulders over the competition. Why? Well, let’s talk about trends in nonfiction picture books for a second. There’s been a real push recently for publishers to churn out more STEM related books for younger readers. Publishers have complied, but some noticed that the wider the ages of your audience, the better your book will sell. So the trend is to create a picture book on a nonfiction subject with text for older readers in the main body of the book, and then to also have text for younger readers either at the bottom of the page or on the side. The idea is that you can then sell it to all sorts of kids. Smart thinking but it can lead to awkward juxtapositions. Sometimes it’s the younger text that’s prominent with miniscule type layered in odd crevices on the page for the older kids. Sometimes it’s confusing and when you read both texts it feels disjointed. Surely there’s a way to do it that’s seamless. You know where I’m going with this.
In “Hey, Water!” Portis is taking this trend in nonfiction book publishing and improving upon it. You might not even notice on a first or second read, but each page contains one large word that describes what you’re thinking. “River”. “Iceberg.” “Bug”. So, basically, you could read these words with a very small child and wait to read the rest of the text until they’re older. The “older” text, for the record, is also supremely simple. It’s tackling big ideas with simple words and images, which is always one of the hardest jobs to do in this business. Most of the text is perfectly placed. There is, however, one moment where the book likens an iceberg to a rock, and then jokes that it’s a rock that can float or a rock you can skate on. I could see some scientifically minded gatekeepers not caring much for that, saying that it misleads children into thinking that ice is rocks. A minor quibble. For my part, I discovered that if you take the backmatter into account, this book is almost for three different reading levels, rather than two. After all, the explanation of water forms, the water cycle, conserving water, and the Bibliography are all better suited for older kids (or, more likely, parents that forgot all this stuff years ago and need to answer their 3-year-old’s question about precipitation). In the end, this book is supremely smart. Shall I entertain a prediction about it then? If this book is not turned into a board book with those simple words and images in the next year or so, I will eat my hat. Eat it with salt and butter and a little droplet of sauvignon blanc on the side.
One thing that did confuse me about the book was no fault of the book itself. As I turned pages I kept expected die-cuts. Weird, right? Maybe it was the fact that this book reminded me of the work of Laura Vaccaro Seeger. Maybe I just felt a die-cut would have been appropriate. It was only after I’d pondered this puzzle for a little while that I realized the answer. In 2018 the extremely talented Christy Hale produced the nonfiction picture book, “Water Land: Land and Water Forms Around the World”. A book replete with, you guessed it, die-cuts. Like Portis’s title, Hale is unafraid to zoom in and back up from different bodies of water. Unlike Portis, Hale is far more interested in how water intersects with land. Consider it a companion book to this one then. Both have a vested interest in informing young children about water around the world. Their focus is just a bit skewed from one another.
The moral of the story? Remember the little children. Remember that they deserve as many books as their elders. I’ll admit that with the increased scrutiny on nonfiction books for kids, we’re seeing a level of artistry, previously restricted to fiction, coming out on a wide array of various nonfiction subjects. The days when publishers would churn out rote, dull books on the subjects teachers needed are far from gone. Still, little glinting gems like “Hey, Water!” are becoming increasingly common. Perhaps they can win awards. Perhaps they can win hearts and minds. And maybe, just maybe, some little kid out there will read this book and, for whatever reason, love it dearly. Hey, Portis! You made a really good book.
For all ages.