Michael Foreman's Seal Surfer
Children's book review by Steve Barancik
Disabled boy meets seal; YOU decide what it means
One day in early spring an old man and his grandson, Ben, carefully climbed down to a rocky beach.
The text doesn't tell us - in fact, the text never tells us - that Ben has some kind of physical disability. In the illustration that accompanies this first page, Ben and his grandfather are dwarfed by the northern California coast. One has to look closely to see that Ben crawls, pulling his crutches along with him.
And once you see that, you're impressed with both Ben and his aged grandfather. It's hard to imagine how even able-bodied people could get to the rocky outcropping the pair just reached.
From their perch, Ben spots a seal, closer to the water, who at first looks to be injured, but then can be seen to have just given birth.
As the seasons pass, Ben and his grandfather keep coming back to see the seal and his mother. They get to see mother nudge baby into the water for the first time. Then they fear the baby died during a winter storm.
Too, we see the fisherman grandfather feeding the pair on his own time. Then a major event: Ben, who is learning to surf with a modified board, meets a major wave and is dashed on the rocks below the surface. He is saved...
...by the baby seal.
Review - Seal Surfer
This is an understated (not underwritten) story, the kind where you can ask your child, "What do YOU think it means?" In that way, it's a welcome contrast to most picture books, with their somewhat obvious narratives and messages, and a good opportunity for you to set your child on the road to reading interpretively.
I myself am not sure precisely how to interpret the book's narrative, and that's okay. I find myself thinking that, in some odd way, the grandfather believes that by being good to the seals, they'll be good to his grandson after he's gone. (He dies between scenes toward the end of the story.)
You and your child may not see it the same way...and I think that's great.
Nowhere in Seal Surfer does Foreman mention the boy's disability, and nowhere in the illustrations is the boy seen without a wheelchair or crutches (or the modified surfboard). Yet the pictures tend to feature the creatures and coastline more than the humans, so it's actually possible not to notice the boy's disability...at least until one of the final pages. Review continues.
In fact, you might not want to mention to your child the boy's disability. Then, if it's not noticed until the end, the book merits an immediate re-read, with this new bit of context.
That's a good thing! Again, author-illustrator Foreman keeps us on our toes.
So my recommendation is to read the Seal Surfer, but don't leave it at that. Make sure there's enough time after this one, before "lights out," to discuss the book intellectually.
Then repeat as desired!
Books about physical disabilities on Amazon.
More disability picture books.
Read more of Steve's reviews.
Best Children's Books - Find, Read or Write home page.