To be clear up front, since Dave Shelton is an English writer still happily living in Cambridge, A Boy and a Bear in a Boat isn't eligible for this year's Newbery. But it's such an unusual book that I thought I'd put up a post about it anyway, despite the fact that it's disqualified from winning any of the big ALA-sponsored awards.
Though I found it arresting, it's fiendishly hard to know how to evaluate this one. It's bold and audacious, and I don't think it entirely works, but it's hard not to admire its courage.
This is a 300-page book with only two characters. Neither is given a name; they are only referred to as Boy and Bear. The Boy, for reasons left entirely unexplained, asks the Bear to row him across an unnamed body of water, to a destination identified only as "the other side." Their attempts to reach that other side constitute the entirety of the book.
The journey, which the Boy had anticipated would be a short one, drags on for days and days. They run out of food on multiple occasions. For huge swathes of the book, nothing is happening at all; the Bear rows, and the Boy attempts to find some way in which to occupy himself.
Enough plot elements are introduced and never given a payoff to make Chekhov cry. There is a comic book in the boat, left there by a previous passenger. It is in a language the Boy doesn't know, but he looks at it over and over again anyway. And...that's it. No explanation is ever given. Similarly, the duo arrive eventually on a Mary Celeste-like abandoned ship. It seems that something is going to happen...but nothing does. The ship simply exists, at least until the Boy puts a hole in it while trying to make tea on a gas stove, and we are never told why it was there or what happened to the crew.
Parts of the book have a certain humor to them, aided by Shelton's drawings, and other parts have a hypnotic, meditative quality. The prose, in places, is beautiful. But I don't feel like it ever truly confronts its insularity, or even hints at a reason for the lack of any kind of context. I compare it to something like Anne Ursu's book Breadcrumbs, which also leaves any number of things unexplained, but does so because they're things the protagonist has no way to know. Some of the things in A Boy and a Bear in a Boat could fit into this category, such as the parts with the abandoned ship, but it's hard to figure a plausible reason why every detail behind the Boy's journey remains so obscure other than the author trying to be too artsy.
I can't finish this review without mentioning the ending, so if you're spoiler-averse, turn back now. At the climax of the book, after a storm has destroyed the rowboat, and the Boy and the Bear are left floating alone in the ocean, the Boy begins rowing the bear, with a ukelele as an oar. And...that's it. Land is never sighted. The journey is never completed. Frankly, I've never read a children's book with less of a conclusion; it makes The Giver look like the Hardy Boys. The only books of any kind that I've ever read that were comparably open-ended are things like Kafka's The Castle.
I have no idea who the audience for this book would be; nearly all middle-grade readers will likely be frustrated by the hazy, molasses-like pace and the lack of anything like an ending, and adult readers who enjoy Calvino and Kafka and the more inaccessible bits of Eco will probably find that the book doesn't explore the interior of its characters in enough depth to be interesting. But you have to give Shelton credit for trying something different, no question. I gave it three stars on Goodreads because that seemed like a reasonable compromise, given the audacious ambition and flawed execution on display.