I do not normally read, or review, children’s books because I am not a child, I have no children, and I principally appreciate children as metaphors or plot devices. My loss, I know, but there you have it.
However, recently a story, written for children, came to my attention which so astutely captured the function of stories that I would be stupid not to mention it. Captain Devin and His Little Red Boat is the tale of a young boy — I’m guessing eight — who decides to go sailing in bad weather. It could be read, I think, to a four-year-old or read by a second grader, but it also has touches of the Garden of Eden and the story of Noah. Interested?
In Demery R. Matthews’ story, young Devin gets up one morning and sees storm clouds and lightning. As any successful entrepreneur might, he decides that this is a perfect day for sailing. He gathers up his crew, which has the advantage of being non-human: an orange dog, a purple giraffe, an alligator, a turtle, a yellow lion. Their destination: Dream Island, “where the weather always turns out the way we want, our tummies are full of our favorite foods, and we play as long as we please.”
But not only Dream Island is prelapsarian. So is Devin’s ark, where lion lies down with dog, and alligator and giraffe have a special relationship. Devin’s charisma holds them together.
And what is Devin’s charisma? Matthews nails it on the head: it is that he presumes success, and then makes it happen. When his first mate, Orange Dog, cavils about sailing in bad weather, Devin’s retort is “I have a good feeling about today, Orange Dog. The sun will shine.” Later, after a turtle insists that the weather is too bad to set forth, he says, “It will be okay, Mr. Turtle. I can see a little ray of sunshine and I have a good feeling about today.”
Devin thus identifies with every entrepreneur who started a business during the 2008-2009 recession, every volunteer who joined the military after our country was attacked, every person who chooses a career doing what he loves rather than what will make him the most money, every person who elects, even now, to fight tyranny when it seems most ascendant.
You can see it on his face, as he stands at ship’s prow on the cover. Illustrator Margaret Frey gives him a complex smile, though thunderclouds are behind him. It is not the smile of a simpleton; it is the smile of someone who has sailed into danger before, and who likes it. It reminds me a little of FDR, who sailed into more trouble than pretty much anybody, and always had a smile on his face, even in his painful final days.
In fact, Frey creates a symphony of smiles for the book: affectionate
smiles, hungry smiles, rueful smiles, smiles of uninhibited delight. They are not laugh-at-danger smiles, but they are the smiles of creatures who know that they live in a dangerous world, and still see the joy in it.
All right. There are obviously reasons that I am analyzing this book, designed to be read by (or to) young children, as though it had come off the pen of Don Delillo. The first is that the stories children hear are important, and tend to have more impact than, say, the stories we hear while we are doing our taxes or trying to figure out how to send our first-born to college.
The second is less high-flown, and would be clear to anyone who looked at the front of the book and saw the full name of the illustrator: Margaret Treanor Frey. Margaret is my cousin, and a remarkable woman: an artist, a fine writer in the science-fiction genre, a CPA (although not of the variety that Ben Affleck played in that movie), and the mother, with her husband Mark, of a feisty young woman about Captain Devin’s age. Several years ago I asked her to create this website for me. I no longer use it because I have trouble updating on that platform, but I’ve kept it up because it’s so damn pretty. Plus, of course, I look younger than I am on it.
Margaret is a little under the weather herself these days, but I see her on the pages of this book, aware of dangers, and smiling through them, like Captain Devin, or FDR, or any hero. I recommend you pick up this book and read it to your child, or to the child within, who will face stormy weather one day, and will need to be ready to smile.