I feel thirsty for something, so I go to The Water Hole. I have been here many times before, whether in drought or just after a heavy, refreshing rainfall, and at this water hole I always find and drink the something I was searching for.
The first thing I notice when I turn the page is not the astounding art on the right-hand page, though the artist-author’s work draws me strongly to look there. I first notice the big number “1” on the verso. Under the number I read:
drinking at the water hole.
The “1” is big enough for me to see that Graeme Base has painted a rhino skin on it. I feel a fullness in the sparsity of words. I turn the glossy page.
The big “2” wears tiger stripes. I read the words, and the fullness now comes with anticipation. Something is going to happen. Something is already happening.
lapping at the water hole.
(Goodness gracious, how very delectable!)
I feel comfort in the repetition, friendliness in the pattern, winsome humor in the “translation” of the animals’ talk. Before I turn to the page with the big “3” I am expectant, because I know what to expect.
There will be a big number. There will be that many animals in the painting on the recto, and one simple sentence fragment. Below that, the animal sounds, and then in parentheses, the “translation.” Like this:
[verb ending in -ing] at the water hole.
“[appropriate animal sound]!”
([some clever line from the animals’ conversation])
Graeme Base is witty. He makes me laugh, and I like him for it. (You should hear the goofy moose on the “5” page, and what the 8 businesslike ladybugs say while they are “meeting at the water hole.”)
I once read a book on writing that mentioned “the economy of words,” and I marvel at how, in four lines, Graeme (pronounced gray-em, by the way) is able to build a plot. He incorporates a full-fledged story arc in a counting book, a simple picture book about animals he saw on his safaris in Kenya and Tanzania. Genius.
The water hole shrinks with every page turn, for the drought is coming. Graeme Base takes the comfortable, exciting pattern he introduced in the beginning—and breaks it. “Ten Kangaroos looking at the water hole. There was nothing to say. The water was all gone.”
I am thirsty again, and beginning to panic. Where is the water I came for? Suddenly I have “cotton mouth” and my throat is parched. Do you want to know what animals he features on the next double-page spread?
The extinct ones. Ten of them, including Dodo, Passenger Pigeon, Great Auk. These extinct animals are not drawn directly; the artist forms them from the voids in a painting of a land parched like my throat, with withered trees and dull color.
Then a shadow fell across the sun.
Clouds began to gather.
A single drop of rain fell.
And the water hole returns, and all the animals came back.
I did not even mention the strip of ten animal silhouettes lining the top and bottom of every page; those same animals cleverly hidden in the main painting, creating a kind of scavenger hunt that would delight and challenge a reader of any age; the little frogs wearing aloha-shirts, also hiding. Even his signature is fun to look for on each illustration. I did not mention every aspect of Graeme Base’s The Water Hole that captivates the senses. Maybe, like the animals, I will come back and do that next time.