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*Wave Watcher* by Craig Alan Johnson - young adult book review


Wave Watcher
by Craig Alan Johnson
Grades 7-9 139 pages Bellwood Press January 2005 Paperback    

Wave Watcher Craig Alan Johnson’s first novel, is told in the form of a series of journal entries by Ray, a writer about 12-years-old. His dad, who is also a writer, likens him to a child prodigy on the order of Mozart. This explains why Ray, writing from the perspective of a childm, can write so as to connect with his audience.

From a very early age, Ray is fascinated by patterns he observes, be it in nature or in the unfolding of events. He is especially fascinated by the waves that form and break on the shore of the lake facing his family’s home in Brazil. He sees orderliness in their movement; his father warns him about patterns and tells him they can lie or mislead.

One fateful day nearing Christmas, the patterns fail to materialize. The events of that day shock and numb Ray. He is unable to write. Now, almost a year after this event, Ray picks up the notebook his father gave him to “catch the metaphors” when his thoughts keep him up at night. Seated in his dad’s writing chair, Ray uses his father’s Parker 5, the one with which “beautiful words are made,” to jot down his thoughts. Through notes that digress and go back and forth in time covering events in his young life, Ray finally reveals the cause for his silence. He examines the relevance of these happenings by comparing them to situations faced by familiar literary characters such as Hamlet and Scout and Atticus Finch. At the end of his journaling, Ray accepts that the events of the previous year had a pattern.

Through Ray’s notes, the reader learns that his parents met in Kansas, married and settled in Colorado, where Mom studied nursing and Dad worked as a high-school teacher. They had two sons: Ray is the writer, reader and gifted student; Louie, born two years later, has an enlarged heart and only one lung. An accident during Louie’s toddler years leaves him missing two fingers in his right hand. At age three, a knock against a table severs the top part of his left ear (the family manages to salvage only a part of it from their grandparents’ Chihuahua). Louie is also dyslexic and disgraphic.

These setbacks do not hinder Louie at all. His cheerfulness and passion for life lead to friendships with young and old. Still, Dad tells Ray once that he is worried that Louie will be lonely. His impulsive behavior leads to many accidents and injuries. One day, Ray jumps off a tree in their yard calling out to his Daddy to catch him. Daddy is too far away to do so and Louie ends up fracturing his right wrist. After this incident, Dad promises both boys that “If you hold on for as long as you possibly can, then I will be there to catch you when you fall.” Louie has a reserve of faith and a sense of knowing things that make Ray wonder about him.

To Ray’s Bahá’í family, an important day of celebration is not Christmas but Naw-Rúz which falls on the 21st of March, the day of the spring equinox and also Ray’s parents’ wedding anniversary. It is on one such day when the family exchanges gifts that Mom gives Dad a photograph of him taken while on a vacation in Brazil. A red shack in the background is revealed to have been purchased by Mom so that Dad can devote his time to writing full-time while she supports the family. The renovated shack, located on the shore of a lake that Louie names “Whale Rock Beach,” becomes their new home. It is here that Dad sells his first short-story and goes on to complete the manuscript for his novel.

Johnson crafts his novel with metaphor-tinged prose that beautifully brings Ray and his family to life. Whether it is Dad writing in his chair, Mom playing Mozart, or Ray reading to Louie at bedtime each day, Johnson uses his words to project images of the sad, happy and funny events that make up Ray’s life. Whale Rock Beach and the two beaches adjoining it, Cave Beach and Bone Crusher Beach, form an essential backdrop to Ray’s story that explains why Christmas, too, becomes a day of significance for this family.

As a person who recognizes the benefits of journaling, Johnson not only uses this technique to advantage in his novel but obviously refers to his own journal entries to create a story around places, relationships and experiences that have impacted his life. The therapeutic effect of journaling and the release it can provide is aptly demonstrated through Ray’s writing.

Johnson uses Ray’s character as a writer to provide inspiration to aspiring writers. The advice that Ray receives from his father to nurture his muse, and the observations that Ray himself makes, hold true for all writers and the craft of writing. By drawing attention to the symbolism that words hold, the need to write responsibly, and the writing and editing processes, Johnson interweaves his story with advice that many a writer can take to heart.

Wave Watcher is about the close bonding that takes place in families, especially between fathers and sons, and the small heroic acts that help those bonds form. It is a sensitive examination of the values that unite families, about communication, trust, faith and keeping promises. It is also about understanding and accepting the inter-relatedness of events, something that Ray, the wave watcher, accomplishes through his journaling.
Young adult book reviews for ages 12 and up - middle school and high school students

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