Friday, August 19, 2011
By Jim LaMarche
This is a quiet summer story that will capture a boy’s imagination during the dog days of August. Inspired by his own childhood at the cottage, Jim LaMarche’s The Raft begins with Nicky sulking in the car as his father drives to Nicky’s grandmother’s riverside cottage where the boy will spend the summer. Nicky laments, “There’s nobody to play with. She doesn’t even have a TV.”
One day when fishing from a dock, Nicky eyes an object drifting down the river. It floats right to the dock. He sees animal drawings all over the raft’s surface. Over the course of the summer, this raft becomes Nicky’s hangout and his transport, sometimes with Grandma, sometimes without.
There is something magical about this raft, its art or both. Animals of all kinds are drawn to it, allowing Nicky to observe them and, in time, draw them.
For teachers, this book is a springboard to a writing brainstorming session based on the oft-stated advice, Write what you know. The author’s note at the beginning of the book makes clear that the story stems from LaMarche’s own experiences. A class can reflect on the note and the story and speculate as to what parts are real and what parts are enhanced or wholly imagined. Students can then take some of their own memories and change them from journal entries to fiction by adding a few What If twists.
LaMarche’s paintings are exquisite, with golden glows of sun and sand and murky greens of river and trees. Flip through and study Nicky’s face, transforming from bored and full of despair on his first unsuccessful fishing venture to alive and focused as he sketches a crane that lands on the raft.
At times, the animal attraction to the raft seems overdone, with Nicky and the raft comparing to Snow White and her ability to engage with critters of the woods. Still, The Raft will inspire a boy to long for a trip to a river or lake, alert to observe and interact with natural surroundings. Every child should be so lucky to be in the moment and forget all about TVs, computers and the latest game gadgets.