She’s the Captain of Her Ship

Out Into the Big Wide Lake – written by Paul Harbridge, illustrated by Josée Bisaillon
Tundra Books, 2021

Out Into the Big Wide Lake is a wonderful picture book about a young girl learning to challenge herself. It’s also about a child with a disability who has a wonderful family to support her.  The book’s most salient qualities, evident in both its words and pictures, is its honest and unaffected tone, and the way in which it works on different levels simultaneously.  To say it is “just” a book about disability would be untrue, and yet that is not to diminish the subtlety with which Paul Harbridge and Josée Bisaillon take on that issue in their story.  A child who does not live with a disability will also relate to the ordinary courage of the young heroine, Kate, as she navigates a new environment and gains confidence.  The book is extraordinarily sensitive and beautiful, and Kate is an unforgettable character.

In a brief introduction accompanied by a photo, Harbridge explains that he based the story on his younger sister, an accomplished and brave young woman who has Down Syndrome.  The book itself never specifies that Kate lives with this challenge. Instead, the author allows her to describe, in thoroughly convincing words, her feelings, her daily routine, and her ambitions.  Bisaillon’s lovely and expressive pictures of Kate do imply that she has Down’s syndrome, yet she also is depicted with a clear family resemblance to her mother and, especially, her grandmother.  She is different from them, and yet linked to them as well, as we all are to our own relatives. 

When we first meet Kate, she is seated at her desk with colored pencils, but she is not drawing. (image) Rather, she is practicing writing her name by associating each letter with a different object: “A stick with an arm and a leg. That was a ‘K.’ ‘A’ was a tent…’T’ was a telephone pole and ‘E’ was a little comb.”  There is no need to explain her learning method, and her creativity is also evident.  When Kate’s grandmother suggests to her mother that Kate spend the summer at her grandparents’ lakeside home, Kate’s mother hesitates. She doesn’t need to articulate her fears, only to suggest them. Any parent might experience this same ambivalence, but, in Kate’s case, her concerns are a bit different.  But when Kate’s grandmother responds, “Give her a chance,” it is clear that everyone is on the same page.

Kate’s grandparents own a store, and they deliver groceries by boat to the neighbors in their small community.  Kate takes an active role, happily helping her grandfather to load the boat with cartons. Her grandmother is loving and accepting of Kate, but she also knows exactly how to push her to succeed.  Again, in addition to the theme of normalizing life for a child with a disability, there is also the parallel ideal of caregivers, often grandparents, who dedicate themselves to helping children realize their own goals, rather than those imposed on them.  Bisaillon captures the excitement of learning to steer the boat from a bird’s eye view, while a crane circles overhead, as if admiring the scene.

One day, circumstances leave Kate alone in the boat. She thinks carefully, and decides to take on the role which her grandparents’ support has made possible.  Empathy plays a part in her choice, as she thinks of one particular customer, “…the old man sitting there, waiting and waiting.” Kate is not absorbed in her own experience; she can reach out to others. The old man also becomes part of an interesting subplot about family tensions, ensuring that the relationships in the book are not overly idealized. 

When Kate’s mother arrives and embraces her, her simple statement about Kate’s summer experience, “Just like when I was a girl,” is full of implicit meaning.  Kate confronts some obstacles which her mother did not, but the two share a deep, common bond.  The final image sums up that connection.  Mother and daughter look out the window towards the world, and also appreciate Kate’s unique identity, in the form of a wooden miniature boat and girl framed in the center of their view.  Out Into the Big Wide Lake is a summer outing, or one for every season, to share with our children.

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