BREAKING WAVES: Winslow Homer Paints the Sea
Robert Burleigh; Ills. by Wendell Minor                      
Neal Porter Books, Holiday House
June 1, 2021
ISBN: 978-0823447022

A Junior Library Guild Selection

starred review
This stunning work of literary nonfiction follows a year in the life and process of American painter Winslow Homer (1836–1910)…. The watercolor and pencil illustrations are beautiful and capture the different feelings the sea can conjure. The images are at times calm and peaceful and at times thrilling and dangerous. These illustrations are reason enough to add this book to collections but, in addition to the gorgeous visuals, this work is rich with sensory language. A beautiful and rich work of literary nonfiction. 

It takes a special talent to convey the essence of an artist to children in an understandable way. Burleigh does so expertly, highlighting Winslow Homer’s fascination and love for the ocean and its waves, by pulling out and repeating words of action—splash, shimmer, calm, roar—to convey the emotion of Homer’s seascapes as he captures with paint the beauty of the Maine coast where his family vacationed. Minor’s watercolors allow sketch marks to show, mimicking the process by which Winslow brought pencil to paper and jotted impressions of the nearby cliffs.  The beautiful whites, grays, and blues are typical of New England, ably showing the power of places where sea meets land.

Minor’s realistic depictions of Homer’s spare and tidy domestic world and prim suiting situate the story in time, while the looser, more expressive evocations of the untamed Maine coastline evoke place. The closing section, dotted with exclamations and painting reproductions, fills in biographical details. A solid introduction to a major American artist. 

Children ages 4-8 may almost feel that they have joined in the artist’s creative process: standing with him in suspended moments of concentration; leaping into action with him as he swiftly mixes paints and sends his brush skimming across the paper so that, “on the page, the colors slowly turn - into ocean, rocks, glowing clouds.”

Burleigh’s vivid narrative, beginning and ending in winter, and set in Prouts Neck, Maine — where Homer lived for most of his life on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean — captures the painter’s fascination with the “wild struggle” of “sea versus land, land versus sea.” The watercolor and gouache illustrations let us feel the splash and the spray, of both the crashing surf and the swooshing paint: “White drops scattering across the canvas. Rough and rapid brush strokes.” Until, finally, the sea and the painting become one.

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