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Day 158 – Hattie and the Wild Waves

Another month, another theme, and another wonderful Barbara Cooney book we are able to work into our calendar. For June, we have departed (figuratively) for the beach, and today we came across “Hattie and the Wild Waves”, a beautifully written and illustrated story about a free-spirited little girl named Hattie who is inspired by the wild waves on the beaches of Long Island.hattie

Hattie is the youngest child in a German-American family living on Long Island, presumably around the turn of the century. Hattie’s father is a very successful home-builder, and her parents frequently host big parties for all their German friends and relations. There is plenty of food, including potatoes galore (clouds of mashed kartoffeln), followed by a retreat to the parlor where Mama keeps her two greatest treasures: her rosewood piano and a grand painting called “Cleopatra’s Barge”, a masterpiece by Opa Krippendorf…Hattie’s grandfather. Hattie’s brother Vollie is determined to be a successful businessman alongside his father when he grows up, and her sister Pfiffi has plans to become a beautiful bride. However, when Hattie tells her siblings of her wish to become a painter, they burst out laughing “Dummkopf! Little stupid head! Girls don’t paint houses.” but Hattie is not thinking of houses when she says she wants to be a painter. She is thinking of “…the moon in the sky and the wind in the trees and the wild waves of the ocean.”

With her tiny hands, Hattie is not able to excel at piano (her mother says will never get past The Happy Farmer), her needlework is uneven and her french knots are grimy. Standing still to be fitted for dresses, while her sister preens in the mirror, is particularly trying for restless little Hattie. “Trying to be pretty is a lot of work,” she confides to the cook’s daughter, Little Mouse. What she does love is making pictures – especially during the summer, when Hattie and her family go to their beach house in Far Rockaway. While she is at the beach, Hattie can draw, and wonder what it is that the wild waves are saying. One summer, however, Papa buys a new vacation house called The Oaks – larger and grander than Far Rockaway but nowhere near the beach. Hattie’s siblings, Pfiffi and Vollie are both very excited, but Hattie is unsure. The Oaks is nice; Hattie has a tamed macaw who can fetch tennis balls, and she and Little Mouse can walk arm in arm in the deer park and talk about what they will do when they grow up (Little Mouse will teach and Hattie will paint). But The Oaks isn’t Far Rockaway, and Hattie finds herself wondering: what will the wild waves be saying this summer?

Eventually, Pfiffi is married, Vollie becomes a successful business man, and Papa and Mama and Hattie all go to live in a hotel that Papa has built. Sometimes Hattie can draw, but often (too often) her time is taken up with shopping or playing cards with her mother. One night, however, Hattie sees a woman at the hotel sing her heart out on stage and realizes that it is time for her to paint her heart out. The next morning, a stormy day, Hattie goes to the Art Institute and then to Coney Island. The rides are shut down, but the fortune teller booth is open, and Hattie’s fortune card tells her that she will make beautiful pictures…and then the wild waves crashing on the beach tell her the same. When Hattie tells Mama and Papa what she will do, Mama smiles and says “Just like Opa”…but Hattie replies “no, just like me”.

We love this book, both for the beautiful old-timey illustrations we have come to expect from Ms. Cooney, and for the inspiring nature of the story. Not only does the book remind listeners to be true to themselves, but it stresses the importance of family and paints Hattie’s story against the backdrop of an immigrant family reaping the rewards of their hard work and living out the “American Dream.” After studying German for many years in high school and college, I also enjoyed reading aloud all the German words and phrases that Ms. Cooney worked into the text…it’s an acquired taste, but for those of us who have acquired it…it’s fun!