Buckley and his mom live an ostensibly simple and idyllic life in a little wooden house by the sea. But, as we soon learn, the pair are actually bereft of a third and much-missed member of the family: Buckley’s Papa.
While it’s not clear whether the loss is permanent or temporary, it takes a toll on both mother and son. Buckley, true to the master-builder reputation of beavers, enjoys building boats from driftwood — albeit with anthropomorphised paws in this case — and uses them as an outlet for his feelings: he sends his favourite boats out to sea with a note to Papa, à la message-in-a-bottle, believing that if the boats do not get washed back to shore, it means that they have reached him. Meanwhile, we see Buckley’s mom taking wistful solo late-night strolls on the beach, clearly missing Papa too.
Both characters are extremely well drawn and you can glean a lot from their expressions and body language, thanks to the quietly evocative illustrations, while the beach-hut setting of the story allows the glorious illustrations to be awash in comforting brown and seaweed-green tones, occasionally lightened by the blue skies and the sea. I also love the intricate details in Buckley’s myriad boat creations, and the sweet portrayal of the relationship between Buckley and his mother.
Whether you read Boats for Papa as a parent or a child, it’s impossible not to be moved by its heartbreaking premise, and it’s full credit to the author that rather than an overtly “adult” tale focusing on grief, this is a child-centred, hope-filled story about how we learn to sail on with life, despite experiencing loss — buoyed by the restorative power of love.