Any Southern California kid who’s ventured onto the ocean by boat or Boogie board will love reading about David, an eighth-grader who inherits a 22-foot sloop from his uncle. Gary Paulsen’s The Voyage of the Frog (Orchard Books: $12.95; 143 pp., ages 11-13) is a hair-raising adventure that gives new meaning to a day sail. It’s about survival and a boy’s coming-of-age, similar to Paulsen’s Newbery Honor Books “Dogsong” (1985) and “Hatchet” (1987).
The first clue of things to come is in Neil Waldman’s dramatic jacket painting that shows a sailboat struggling in heavy seas under ominous gray skies. Terror is just one of many new feelings David is to experience when he impulsively heads out of Ventura Harbor, west, beyond the Channel Islands, to scatter his uncle’s ashes.
At first, the ocean seems friendly and David feels reverence for it. The swells were huge ". . . sometimes towering twenty feet above the cockpit, (then they) slid like oil under the boat and brought her sliding up, over, and down into the next swell.” Soon, however, he hates himself for not checking the Frog’s water and food supplies, for not having a two-way radio. And for not considering weather conditions.
A storm rages on the unsuspecting boy, nearly killing him when the boom swings into his head and knocks him below deck. He lies helplessly as waves spill into the cabin. The next day, though thankful the wind has stopped, David realizes the Frog is miles from land and drifting who-knows-where. For the first time in his life he is thirsty, he is hungry, he is alone, and if he’s going to survive, he must pull himself together.
Between encounters with a great white shark, an oil tanker, and a pod of killer whales, David thinks about his uncle and about life, particularly the lives of the street people whose “emergency hunger” he now understands. When he begins reading the ship’s log and glimpses of his uncle show through, the reader wishes for more, more of the private life that so endeared him to his nephew. It seems odd that David doesn’t wonder about his parents or their worry for him until the last pages. Nine days alone should muster feelings of family one way or another.
Sailors will appreciate Paulsen’s attention to detail, especially the Frog’s bow-to-stern diagram, and the coastal map showing David’s journey down Baja. The most wonderful scene comes when he anchors in a cove and wakes to the spray and dance of whales, “several with calves--and some large and some so immense they seemed to fill the sea, fill the world, and they were all around him.”
In The Broccoli Tapes by Jan Slepian (Philomel Books: $13.95; 157 pp., ages 8-12), set in Hawaii, Sara and her brother Sam are newcomers to the islands while their professor father teaches for five months, a temporary arrangement that is unbearably lonely until they rescue a wild cat trapped among some lava rocks.
Sara sends taped reports to her history teacher in Boston, and these tapes provide the novel’s narration. She describes their efforts to tame the broccoli-eating cat, and their attempts to befriend Eddie, an angry native boy who seems even lonelier than they. Meanwhile, Sara and Sam’s mother virtually ignores them as she cares for their dying grandmother.
Different kinds of failure, different feelings of despair. Why bother loving anything or anybody if it hurts so much to lose them. ". . . What’s the point?” Sam cries. “Why do it, if you feel so bad when they’re gone? You might as well hit yourself over the head with a hammer.”
The answer becomes a defense of love. A fractured relationship between Eddie and his dad begins to mend, and a tragedy becomes the basis for a happy ending.
“The Broccoli Tapes” is good, but more attention the Hawaii locale would have made it better. When the family arrives at a beach where natives are hula dancing, Sara says, “We didn’t see much of it.”
Why not ?! Unfortunately young readers will miss absorbing a culture rich in history and tradition. They’re missing a bit of paradise.