Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Thursday, August 1, 2013


Even though there is a structure right down the road called Castle Farms, completely renovated to mirror the original and other similar medieval marvels, it has no moat.  The closest I've ever been to a castle with a moat is on a miniature golf course. History tells us that moats have been used as a line of defense as far back as the Mayans though we generally think of them paired with European castles.

When recalling all the books read in settings featuring castles and moats, the presence of a goat and a hen do not figure in any of them.  It's not every day you see a goat donning a knight's helmet holding hands...er...wings with a hen on top of a barrel floating in water.  Let's open the cover of What Floats in a Moat? (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers) by Lynne Berry with illustrations by Matthew Cordell to see what's happening.

Archie the Goat stopped short at a moat.

After much ado involving a table, paper, measuring tape, writing implements and using the old noodle, Archie has an idea.  When Skinny the Hen calmly points out he could use the drawbridge, Archie scoffs.

"Bah," said Archie, "drawbridge, straw-bridge."

For this goat there is only one answer---science.

The two take a gander at the pile of stuff loaded on their cart.  Hmmmm...Archie is thinking the barrel might be the solution to getting across the water.  Working hard the two build a sailing ship of sorts, the S. S. Buttermilk.  Archie climbs on board with Skinny left to do all the labor of getting it into the water.
Guess what?  It sinks like a rock.

It's back to the proverbial drawing board with science to the rescue.  This time the goat thinks an empty barrel might float.  The problem is that all the barrels are filled with buttermilk.  After a bit of a back and forth discussion, hen begins to drink...and drink...and drink.  With the application of more elbow grease by the two, the S. S. Empty becomes a reality.

Guess what?  It floats like a charm, but rolls around like a ball, plunging Archie the Goat smack dab into the water again.  Never fear, he is relentless in his pursuit of getting from one side to the other.  Skinny the Hen is not so enthusiastic; the thought of drinking more buttermilk weighing heavily in her thoughts and on her body.

Due to her inability to imbibe as previously done and after a bit more work, the S. S. Ballast is tested.  Guess what?  The goat, the hen and...the queen, a royal pig, have a little Q & A about barrels, buttermilk and science.  Science wins!

Lynne Berry has the right combination of ingredients to create a playful read with intent.  Rhyme, alliteration, repetitive lines with appropriate alterations spiced up with liberal doses of humor, tell the tale well.  The personalities of Archie the Goat and Skinny the Hen, his determination to cross the water using his own invention and her logic to use the available draw bridge, clash in the nicest possible way.  They both grow; intellectually and physically (too much buttermilk).

The illustrations of Matthew Cordell foreshadow possibilities on the matching jacket and cover.  On the front we see the pals afloat as well as the letters in the title, on the back the goat, gripping the mast, is glub, glub, glubbing his way to the bottom of the moat.  A scattered pattern of barrels is spread across opening and closing endpapers in a pale, golden color, a shade of buttermilk?

With a turn of page Cordell begins the pictorial story in the lower, left-hand corner opposite the initial title page; goat is pushing a filled cart with hen perched atop, scanning the horizon.  They stop for a conversation on the dedication page and continue toward their destination on the title page.  He even continues the story of goat, hen and the queen after the narrative is finished on the author's note and publishing information pages at the back.

Pen and ink with watercolor pictures fill every page with laughter; white space framing the individual tasks of Archie and Skinny.  Every time goat's helmet gives a klunk as it closes, the body contortions of hen trying to get the latest vessel in the water, goat's frustrated and determined looks and the depressed expression on hen knowing she has to drink buttermilk again, are hilarious.  Some of my favorites are the double page spreads of the launchings and of Archie the Goat and Skinny the Hen when the truth hits home.

You couldn't ask for a more entertaining story that happens to include a lesson from Archimedes than What Floats in a Moat? by Lynne Berry with illustrations by Matthew Cordell.  It's the kind of book where distinct voices are heard for the two friends along with the queen at the end.  It's the kind of book where as the text is read, the pictures will be studied and enjoyed for all the extra they offer.  In a word, this book is fun.

 Please follow the link embedded in Matthew Cordell's name to access his website.  By following this link you are taken to the publisher website to view eight illustrations from the story.  If you follow this link Matthew Cordell chats about the book in a post titled The Next Big Thing: A Global Blog Tour.

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