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Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach
Sink or Swim
Sink or Swim
by Valerie Coulman, illustrated by Roge Girard
Lobster Press,(August 2003)
"Come on," Ralph jumped to his feet.
"We need someone to teach us how to swim."
At the pond, Ralph said hello to the duck family he had been watching earlier.
"Would you teach me and my friend to swim?" he asked.
One of the ducklings quacked. "Cows can't swim!"
And the little ducks starting laughing so hard that they rolled over and got water up their noses.
Ralph laughed too. "Well, not yet, they don't. But maybe you could help us learn."
--Sink or Swim by Valerie Coulman, illustrated by Roge, p. 5-7
It's a hot day, so Ralph the cow wants to swim. Everyone he asks tells him that he can't swim--that cows just don't--but Ralph just tells them "Maybe not yet," but that he'll learn. Ralph perseveres, asking animal after animal how they swim, and learning a bit of technique from each one. He makes multiple trips to a swim store, picking up equipment until he's all decked out with a swimsuit, goggles, nose plugs, flippers, and a surf board--and in the end, he can not only float and swim, but surf. Sink or Swim is an uplifting, hopeful book about a cow that doesn't give up--and succeeds even though everyone around him tells him he can't. I loved this book on the first read, and every read after that.
Coulman (When Pigs Fly, I Am a Ballerina) makes Ralph an instantly likable and sympathizable character; Ralph is good-natured, optimistic, and polite, and he perseveres, even when everyone around him tells him he can't swim. He doesn't give up, believing that he just needs practice. Ralph is a character who believes in himself from the get-go, and this is lovely to see. Ralph's friendly good nature also helps other characters be friendly and wins him advice on how to swim--which is a good example for young children. Coulman shows the reader how Ralph got his idea to swim--by watching nearby ducks swim--and this makes Ralph's idea more credible.
Coulman groups Ralph's encounters with animals telling him he can't swim, yet showing him a technique, in a set of three--a familiar and common grouping, which helps the reader ease into what happens. She tosses in Ralph's friend and the store owner telling him that cows don't swim, but they're more bystanders. Ralph's optimistic responses become something readers expect to hear, and they're not let down. Bit by bit, Ralph puts together the pieces of technique he's taught, and problem solves (he realizes he needs something to keep the water out of his eyes), and his resourcefulness and perseverance pay off in the end. He also purchases swimming equipment after each encounter, which introduces young children to specific swimming equipment and their uses in an entertaining way.
Coulman wrote a satisfying, fun ending. When Morris tells Ralph cows don't surf, Ralph grins and says "Not yet they don't." You just know he's going to succeed at something others think is impossible. This also brings the story around full circle, giving the feeling that a very similar story is going to play out as soon as we close the book. The closing also reminds us of the opening, since Ralph is "wonderfully cool"--the opposite of what he was at the opening of the story.
One of the cool things about picture books is that they expose children to different styles of art. So it is with Roge's illustrations; his work is stylized, a little cartoonish, and somewhat child-like. Roge (When Pigs Fly, Cesar Takes a Break) uses broad sweeps of color, with visible brush strokes and blending. The palette is bright, with a lot of yellows, greens, blues, and reds. Roge uses white for highlights, the streaks not fully blended in, which creates an interesting visual effect.
Roge's illustrations are playful, especially for observant readers. In many illustrations, we see fish doing impossible things, such as riding a bicycle, sitting down to eat with cutlery at a tablecloth-covered table, reading a newspaper--all under water. Roge also uses humor in the illustrations, such as the frog on top of Ralph's head as he enters the swim store, Ralph using a bathing cap on his nose for nose plugs, and the swim store owner decked out in a funny deep-diving suit.
The two cows are made distinct from each other through different eyes, markings, and clothes, and the clothes are different primary colors--one red, one blue. This helps make it easy at a glance to know which cow Ralph is--aside from his swim attire and equipment. The sky dramatically changes color from spread to spread, for no discernible reason--from yellow to white to blue to green-yellow and back again. Visual interest is created through different-sized illustrations; some are full spread, full bleed, others are one per page, sometimes full spread, sometimes in the shape of a rough circle or oval, and others have a series of small illustrations on one page. Roge also makes use of white space, which brings a lightness to the work.
Ralph changes from his pants and suspenders into an old-fashioned bathing suit the same style and color (red with thin white stripes) without mention in the text, after his first visit to the swim shop. Observant readers will enjoy spotting that detail, and many more (such as the frog that suddenly gets a bathing top after visiting the swim store), that Roge uses to build on the story text.
Roge adds to the ending, helping it be much more satisfying, by showing two added illustrations without text, where Ralph has clearly succeeded at surfing, both in the pond, and then in a tropical setting.
Sink or Swim is an enjoyable, funny, uplifting book, sure to appeal to any reader who's been told they can't do something--or just wants to try something new. Highly recommended. Sink or Swim is the sequel to When Pigs Fly, which has a similar theme. If you haven't read it, you'll want to pick that up, too.
For more Lobster Press books, or to read more about Sink or Swim, or When Pigs Fly, check out Lobster Press' new website.
-Added June 04, 2008
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