|Image from BarnesandNoble.com|
Each day Jonathan and his best friend, Frederick, a stuffed bear, walk down to the wharf and gaze up at the Big Blue Boat. But one day Jonathan’s parents decide he’s too old for stuffed animals and trade Frederick for a toaster. Heartbroken, Jonathan walks to the wharf alone. There he decides to search the world for his friend sailing on the Big Blue Boat. In his search Jonathan runs into trouble, but he makes new friends (a goat, an elephant, and a whale) that help the boat stay afloat. Finally in a small shop in Jonathan’s hometown, they find Frederick in the arms of a little girl behind the counter who refuses to let her new friend go away. But Jonathan smiles because he knows there’s lots of room for new friends on the Big Blue Boat.
The illustrations are the highlight of this charming story about friendship. Stead uses collage techniques to incorporate postage stamps, maps, postcards, tables, and other nautical and travel oriented print materials. The collage elements are layered together with washes of color and loose line work. Jonathan, a young African-American boy, is a wonderful example of a true friend. It’s also refreshing to find a story that features a non-white protagonist in a story that has nothing to do with race.
The text helps the illustrations create an atmosphere where magical events are possible. The text is subtle and often implies rather than states that events have happened. These implicit clues can be difficult for kids to decipher, so you may need to ask kids questions to make sure they make the leap with you.
As you read the book, point out objects that are made up of related items. For instance, the cash register in the shop has covered in bank slips and handwritten accounts, while the illustration of the boat sailing at night includes constellation charts and latitude tables.
Create a scavenger hunt for particular items in used in the collages. For instance, can you find a postage stamp with Abraham Lincoln? How about one with an elephant? Can you find the words “Starboard” and “Scholar”? How many postcards can you find? How many maps? Can you find the planets? You can ask the questions and flip through the book altogether or, if you have several copies of the book. you can split the kids up into smaller groups and have the scavenger hunt printed up.
After reading the story, have the kids act out the story. Use a large box as the Big Blue Boat (feel free to let the kids decorate the boat) and assign a character to each child. Tell the story a few times so everyone gets a chance to play. You can also extend the story by having Jonathan make more animal friends before he finds Frederick. For a smaller group or a single child, get out a toy boat and some animals and have them retell the story with the toys. This also works with bath toys during bathtime.
If you like Stead's work, check out my post on his Caldecott winning book, A Sick Day for Amos McGee.