Friday, November 30, 2007

Book Review - Lightship by Brian Floca

The Ambrose lightship was built in 1908 to guide ships safely from the Atlantic Ocean into the mouth of the lower New York Bay between Coney Island, NY and Sandy Hook, NJ. Lightships, if you aren't familiar with them, were basically "floating lighthouses" anchored in areas where it was too deep, expensive or impractical to construct a lighthouse. Lightships displayed a light at the top of a mast and in areas of fog also sounded a fog signal and radio beacon. The last member of the U.S. lightship fleet was decommissioned in 1983.

Today the Ambrose is docked at the South Street Seaport Museum, where
visitors can climb aboard and view an exhibition of photographs, charts, and artifacts on lightships and navigation. This is the vessel that is visible from Brian Floca's studio in Brooklyn, and the one that is the subject of his amazing new book, Lightship.

In the acknowledgments Floca describes nosing around "otherwise inaccessible corners of Light Vessel 87" and other ships, speaking with former crew members, and viewing old photographs. This research informs the text and illustrations in the book. There is also an extensive author's note at the end that provides an overview of the history of lightships.

The book
opens with cutaway images on the endpapers of the Ambrose, labeled to show the important components of the vessel. In spare, but beautifully written text, Floca describes the lightship's crew, daily life, and important job it is tasked with.
Her crew lives
in small spaces,
works in small spaces.

Always there is
the smell of the sea . . .
and the rocking
of the waves.

Always they hear
the creaking of the ship
and the slow
slap, slap, slap
of water on the hull.
The text is accompanied by ink and watercolor illustrations that range from
close-ups of the crew and spaces in the ship, to double-page spreads of the ship, the sea, and passing ships. The beauty and genius of the pictures lies in the details, like the deckhand with several women's names tattooed and crossed off on his arm, the captain using a sextant, the cat that shouldn't be aboard the ship at all, the crew member snoring in his rack, and many more.

As someone who spent time sailing on this ship, and one of these, I have great affection for depictions of nautical life, and Floca has done a terrific job capturing it. Kids don't need to love boats to enjoy this book. Anyone who picks it up will be enchanted by the text and illustrations. This is one of my favorite nonfiction books of the year. I highly recommend it.

Check out the book trailer for even more information.
Book: Lightship
Author and Illustrator: Brian Floca
Publisher: Atheneum/Richard Jackson Books
Publication Date: March 6, 2007
Pages: 48
Grades: K-3
ISBN-10: 1416924361
ISBN-13: 978-1416924364
Source of Book: Copy received from publisher for Cybils consideration

Other Reviews
the excelsior file


  1. This is one of my favorites picture books of the year. I wish Floca would win a Caldecott for it. Thanks for the review. I think Jr. and I need our own copy--not just the library's!

  2. The genius of Floca's work is that you never see him working at it.

    The paintings are never about their own virtuosity; your first reaction is never 'oh, that picture must have been really hard to make.' Your first engagement is always with the content: 'wow, that ship is really cool.'

    It's only afterwards that you realize that the easy elegance of the technique and the strength of the design can't happen on page after page after page without a lot of thought and care.

    The combination of painterly assurance and deference to the subject matter make this book a total class act. I'm a fan.

  3. When this book came in at WPL, I found it fascinating and spent a lot of time reading and examining those wonderful illustrations. I had no idea about lightships, and I found the presentation just so interesting. I had no idea there was a book trailer: I'm going to post it on our blog for the public. It's one of those books I want to make sure I promote. Thanks!