Analysis by Grace Olson

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Flotsam is a Caldecott award-winning picture book by David Wiesner. Without words, this book communicates an intriguing and captivating story about a science-inclined little boy who goes to the beach to find flotsam, whatever washes ashore. He finds an underwater camera on the beach, gets the film developed and is awed to find pictures of a magical underwater world. He also finds a picture of a child holding a picture of a child repeated many times. He gets the clue and adds his own picture to the film. Then he tosses the camera back into the ocean, sending it on a journey to another shore a where it is found by another child. With vibrant pictures and a story with room for imagination, this book is perfect for young readers.

Literary Elements

In a picture book without words, the illustrations must be able to carry the plot on its own. Flotsam communicates the plot with ease. Through strategic use of paneling and position of pictures, the story is driven along by the illustrations. The backdrop of a beach helps create a setting full of nostalgia and fond memories. It is obvious the boy is on a family trip, so this is relatable to anyone who has enjoyed a day out on the beach shore. It is easy to tell the boy's character through the pictures. He is curious and adventurous, as shown by his actions to get the film from the camera he finds developed.

Physical Features

Flotsam is a wide, long book. It consumes the reader's entire lap. This helps capture the attention of readers and immerse them into the world of the story. The longness of the physical aspect of Flotsam supports the idea of the extensive sea shore and the flatness of the ocean expanse. The bright red color of the cover draws the attention of the eye and provokes creative imagination. The inside cover is filled with objects one might associate with the sea, beach or fishing. This goes along swimmingly with the theme of beach discoveries. The inside cover can be seen in Image C below.

Visual Elements

There are a lot of horizontal lines in Flotsam, symbolizing the calmness of the ocean. There are very thick lines around the panels, suggesting emphasis on what is going on within the pictures. The illustrations are full of bright and light pastel colors while on the beach with the boy. However, once he looks at the pictures from the camera, the images become very different. In a stark contrast from light and realistic, the underwater pictures are dark and imaginative. There is obviously a lot of dark blue, but the underwater world is full of breath-taking color and patterns. The creatures and scenes are inventive and provoke the imagination to put meaning to each unusual setting. As seen in Image A below, the underwater world is almost what you would expect, but the twist of a sea shell village is added and makes you wonder who lives there. This creative take on the life of ocean creatures can also be seen in Image D, where an octopus is in a very unusual scene. Lamps and couches are not things expected to be seen underwater, and so opens the reader's mind to what an octopus could possibly use these items for. This fantasy realm under the sea is very different from life on the shore; that contrast is easy to see in the pictures. As seen in Image B, the boy is bright and the colors around him are what is expected.

Artistic Style

The main style of the art in Flotsam is realism. This makes the book relatable and easy to track with as the story goes along. The reader is easily able to follow along and identify with the little boy and what is happening to him. Once the underwater scenes come, however, the style turns a little surrealistic. This is because of the fantastical images of the creatures and setting of the world under the sea. These images are imaginative and other-worldly, and so fit more into the category of surrealism. This contrast can be seen between Images D and E; D being underwater and E on the shore with the boy. In the end of the story, the boy finds a picture of a child holding another picture of a child and so on. As time moves backward, the style matches the era the picture would have been taken, including the use of color. This is an interesting technique that helps the picture really come to life

Artistic Media

David Weisner came up with the story of Flotsam and illustrated it himself. He begins by sketching and using clay to sculpt objects so that he can look at them in a 3-D setting. The final illustrations are a blend of colored pencils and paint. This results in a soft-looking and very detailed style. This is perfect for the style of this picture book. He is able to use bright colors and beautiful textures and is still able to get amazing detail. This aids in the magical and imaginative flow of Flotsam.

Elements of Illustration And Interplay of Text and Illustrations

Because this book is wordless, it cannot rely on text to help tell the story. This can be a challenging task when trying to communicate to children. Flotsam tackles this challenge with ease. The pictures beautifully move the story along on their own, with no need for words to help. This is possible through the use of paneling and the placement of pictures. As seen in the image below, the fact that the little boy is bored waiting a long time is obvious by the small and close together panels at the bottom of the page. This same sequence also illustrates how the pictures can be humorous without words. This book is also filled with large, full-page spreads of fantastical underwater scenes. With the use of these large spreads and the many little ones, the reader is easily able to fill in the blanks and create an individualized story. The possibility of unique added dialogue of explanations are endless with a wordless picture book.
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Flotsam is a perfect example of how words are not necessarily required in order to tell a fascinating and imaginative story. It is easy to understand why this picture book won a Caldecott award. With expert use of all the elements, literary and artistic, this story is beautifully tied together. Much thought is put into the colors, shapes, covers, styles and positions of all the illustrations to make this story flow. A book for the imaginative, Flotsam is a prime example of how elements work together to make a sparkling product.