Children’s book probes family, fishing traditions

Posted Oct. 14, 2010, at 6:34 p.m.

THE FISH HOUSE DOOR, by Robert F. Baldwin and Astrid Sheckels, Islandport Press, Yarmouth, 2010; hardcover, $16.95.

When a lobsterman says “Ayuh” on the second page of text, you wonder whether the author really knows Maine culture or has just seen the idiom on a bumper sticker. But in the following pages, it becomes evident that Robert F. Baldwin is writing about the Maine fishing community from experience.

The children’s book “The Fish House Door” is about a young boy, Shawn, learning the value of family and tradition. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather worked the docks of a Maine island, cleaning paintbrushes on their fish house door.

The door, coated with red, yellow, blue and white paint, is described as a beautiful and “artless” masterpiece. But the hands of a fisherman are artful in their ability to tend nets, steer ships, paint gear and work with traps. The ancestral relic is a reflection of that.

Though Baldwin wasn’t a Maine native, he and his wife, Annabelle, settled in Newcastle, where he first heard the story of the fish house door from the Rev. Bobby Ives, to whom the book is dedicated.

Illustrator Astrid Sheckels, who lives and teaches in Massachusetts, based the scenes and faces of her watercolor illustrations on a photo taken in Frenchboro.

The fog settles over a quiet harbor, spruce trees form a jagged horizon and a boy sits on a salt-encrusted dock. To someone who grew up in Maine, the illustrations seem to be pulled from memory. And just like Maine fishermen, Sheckels isn’t shy with her paint colors.

Baldwin died in 2007 not knowing that the book would come out three years later with beautiful watercolors to bring his words to life.

He created characters that are distinctively Maine, with their pride in hard work and tendency to have short, simple, thoughtful conversations. When an art dealer “from away” homes in on the symbol of their family history, Shawn learns the value of memories and heritage.

Baldwin also touches upon how Mainers react to difficult economic times. The family makes do with what they have, unconcerned about socioeconomic status. Resisting the temptation of a hefty paycheck, the lobstermen preserve their home and way of life.

Baldwin’s other children’s books include “New England Whaler, “This is the Sea that Feeds Us,” and “Cities Through Time: Beijing.” Sheckels’ first children’s book was “The Scallop Christmas” written by Jane Freeberg and published by Islandport Press. It won a 2009 Maine Lupine Honor Award.

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