Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Watertower by Gary Crew (Illustrated by Steven Woolman)

Published in 1994 by Era Publications (Australia)
Science Fiction / Fantasy

The Watertower is a science fiction/horror/fantasy story that was written by Gary Crew and illustrated by Steven Woolman. Paulsen (1995) suggests "One of the reasons Crew teamed up with Woolman was because of the illustrator's interest in the macabre, bizarre fantasy and old B-grade science fiction. Woolman not only illustrated the book but designed it as well, and the design is inordinately innovative. Woolman illustrated the book using a combination of chalk and pencil on black paper, plus acrylic paint on textured board, all to striking effect. To read the book the reader has to gradually turn it through 270 degrees, and like the central character, they are metamorphosed in the actual reading process." The text of the story is simple, but the illustrations are complex.

Jameyson (2012) contends The Watertower has "hooked" its readers from the very beginning, especially students who do not like to read at all:
The Watertower turned heads from the moment it was published--literally as well as figuratively. That's because, to begin with, the reader must actually turn the book on its side to read it and then continue to turn it as the story progresses (or doesn't, depending on your interpretation). According to one advocate, a high school English teacher, the actual turning/handling along with the tantalizing clues to the story--is what hooks her student readers, particularly the less enthusiastic ones.
Both Crew and Woolman like to make their readers work. They understand precisely how much explanation their audience needs, and The Watertower strains readers' abilities to the breaking point.
The book was originally published in Australia by Era Publications in 1994, and the first American edition was published by Crocodile Books in Brooklyn, New York, in 1998. The plot is about two boys in their mid-teens who decide to go for a swim in a mysterious watertower that stands on a hill overlooking the town of Preston, Australia. The town is located in the Australian outback. The exact date in which the story is set is not given, but the illustrations indicate the story occurs in the mid-nineteen thirties to the mid-nineteen forties. The buildings, automobiles, and clothing the characters wear all suggest this time period.

In the opening lines, Crew (1998) creates suspense, "Nobody in Preston could remember when the watertower was built, or who had built it, but there it stood on Shooters Hill--its iron legs rusted, its egg-shaped tank warped and leaking--causing a long, dark shadow across the valley, across Preston itself." The eerie description of the tower suggests there is something unusual, and perhaps even sinister, about the tower that overlooks this rural, Australian outback town.

One summer afternoon, Spike Trotter and Bubba D'Angelo meet at a service station in town with the intent to climb up to the watertower for a swim. Spike leads the way, remarking that his mother warns "it is dangerous up there." Bubba, a little overweight and out of shape, follows behind with his towel in hand. The author implies that Bubba's mother "couldn't have cared less where he went," and this statement takes on greater significance at the end of the story. When Spike reaches the top of the hill, he turns and looks down on the town and sarcastically call the townsfolk "Suckers." The implication of Spike's statement is left to the readers' imagination; nevertheless, it is strange and seems out of place.

When the boys reach the top of the hill, they realize someone had erected a fence around the tower to keep trespassers out; however, the fence has been torn down, or so it seems. Bubba asks, "You reckon vandals done that?" Already having climbed to the top of the watertower, Spike yells down to Bubba, "Hurry up" and throws the access hatch open. It's very hot, so the boys take off their shirts and shorts and begin to climb down into the tank for a swim. A long ladder descends towards the murky water below, and it's so dark inside that the boys can hardly see. When Bubba gets to the bottom rung of the ladder, he describes the water as being "Green. Like Moss. Like slimy, dead moss." Bubba calls out for Spike, who supposedly climbed down into the tank first, but he doesn't answer. All Bubba can hear is his voice as it echoes off the walls of the tower. At this point, the author makes an unusual remark; "[H]e might not have been there at all," perhaps foreshadowing the strange events to come.

Bubba is described as not particularly liking the water. He only gets in the water up to his knees, splashes around a bit, and glances up towards the light "imagining." Perhaps he is wondering where Spike is hiding. As a reader, I assumed Spike had descended into the tank first. He finally calls out to Spike telling him that he is going to climb out of the tower and get dressed. Still there is no answer from Spike, and Bubba assumes Spike is somewhere beneath him in the water. When Bubba climbs out of the tank, he wraps his towel around his waist and begins searching for his clothes. He sees Spike's clothes wedged beneath the hatch but can only see his shirt flapping in the wind. He cannot find his pants. He calls to Spike, whom he assumes is down inside the tank and asks him if his pants are "down there," when all of a sudden Spike appears behind him, dripping wet. How did Spike get out of the tank before Bubba? How did Spike get behind him? Something strange and unusual is taking place here.

Spike laughs, and Bubba assumes his pants have blown away. Spike tells Bubba to go home with the towel wrapped around his waist, but he shakes his head, "No way. If my mother finds out I lost my pants, I'm dead." Bubba fears his mother because she "could land a wallop like nobody else in town." Bubba's mother only appears in one illustration in the text, and she is seen standing at a window staring at the watertower. The expression on her face is sinister, and there is a reflection of the tower that can be seen in the upper, left-hand corner of the window above her head. Does she care where Bubba is headed after all? Has she gone for a swim in the tower metamorphosing as well?

Spike volunteers to run back to Bubba's house and climb in through the window of his bedroom to get him another pair of pants. Before Bubba gets a chance to respond, Spike is gone. Bubba crawls back into the tank because the hot metal is burning his feet. As he descends into the darkness, he reassures himself he will be all right but stops halfway down the ladder. He begins to hear the tower creaking and groaning and reasons that it's the heat and the metal expanding. He smells a strange smell and reasons it's the algae, "all rotten and festering." He sees the water swirling below and reasons it's the wind and the shifting of the tower. He says, "It's old and rickety," and then admits he is frightened, very frightened.

When Bubba finally reaches the top of the tower, he pauses for a moment and then decides to wait for Spike under some nearby bushes. He will feel safer there. It's so hot that his skin begins to blister, and he wonders how long it will be before Spike returns with his clothes. All of a sudden, Bubba hears something move at the top of the tower. He calls out for Spike, and after receiving no response, he begins to climb to the top of the tower once again. The very next illustration is a full-page image of Bubba's face with no text. Upon close examination, the reader notices a spike-like object in one of Bubba's eyes. The reader infers something is taking hold of Bubba; something is changing inside him. Time passes.

When Spike returns calling Bubba's name and waving his shorts wildly, Bubba climbs out of the watertower and begins to dress himself, but something has definitely changed; the reader can see it in his eyes. At some point, Bubba got back into the tank, but this is not indicated directly in the text. As Bubba begins to climb out of the tank, he appears confident and strong, "[I]f I stayed down there a minute longer, I reckon I would have dissolved. The water was great. I had the best swim. I taught myself to lie on the bottom. I could do it to the count of a hundred and twenty. No lie. Two minutes.  Boy that was good." This is strange behavior for a boy who doesn't like to swim and would barely get his legs wet. Spike realizes something is strange, and his eyes narrow. He wants to see the water wrinkles on Bubba's fingers, but Bubba refuses to show him. In an ironic twist, Bubba now takes the lead and turns towards home. He says his mother will be worried if he doesn't come home soon. "You know what a worrier she is. She'll be scared something happened to me, won't she?" This is a strange remark from a boy whose mother could care less where he went; he closes the hatch with a thud. The story ends with Spike looking at Bubba with a confused expression on his face.

The audience for The Watertower would appeal to older children rather than younger children, and it was intended for older audiences. The characters are well-developed, but young children would have difficulty following the story and understanding the complex illustrations, especially when the pages begin to turn. The book could be rather confusing for younger readers. The language is appropriate for the time and setting, and the theme is well-developed; however, the reader has the opportunity to draw his own conclusions about what is happening in the text.

Although Crew's The Watertower won The Australian Children's Picturebook of the Year after it was published, the intended audience for this book is between 9 - 15 year-old students, perhaps even older students and adults. Paulsen (1995) writes, "[M]ore often than not they are written for older readers rather than youngsters you might expect. . . . So while Gary Crew is primarily marketed as a children's writer, he is not constrained by marketing boundaries. Indeed many of his books are ageless, able to be enjoyed by children and adults alike." Paulsen (1995) also suggests "The Watertower belongs to a new niche in children's literature, that of the picture book for mid-primary to mid-secondary readers . . . kids aged from nine to fifteen. According to Crew it is 'based on the notion that children, especially older boys, still love looking at pictures, but are generally intellectually insulted by the childish fare (in both print and visual text) that they are served up.'"

The illustrations are what really carry the plot along in The Watertower. It is interesting how Woolman weaves together what is taking place while Spike is running back to town to get Bubba's clothes and Bubba is waiting for Spike to return. Both events are portrayed in the same illustration. At one point in the story, the reader actually gets "lost" or "turned around" because of the way the pages turn. I actually had to read the story several times to comprehend what was taking place because, as I turned the pages, I found myself actually heading back to the beginning of the book. This was confusing, but it was also intriguing at the same. time. I felt like I was trying to solve a puzzle.

I've never before read a book where the author manipulated the illustrations to this extent. The pictures are accurate and consistent with the text. They carry the story and the plot forward and make the story interesting, fun and enjoyable. The illustrations are authentic for the setting and time period and are appropriate for the mood of the story. Woolman uses bright colors and unusual shapes to extend the story and actually disrupts the balance in the story in a most unusual way by manipulating the reader to the the pages of the book 270 degrees.

I find Crew's book The Watertower eerie but fascinating, and the way Woolman illustrates the text is interesting and innovative. Whether he is writing science fiction, horror, and stories that are just unexplainable, Crew invites his audiences to explore the bizarre and unknown.

Image Source
Meet Gary Crew
Gary Crew Books
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