When Dad’s at Sea has an obvious message: a little girl will miss her father during his time away in the Navy. The realistic illustrations (by Robert Gantt Steele) try to dispel the mystery, showing exactly where the Navy pilot goes. But it’s really the story of the pilot’s daughter, and it describes all her feelings throughout the long absences of her father during his service. And in telling her story, Mindy L. Pelton sends a message to other children of military personnel: that they are not alone.
The book is dedicated “to Katherine and Meredith, and to the children and families of our United States Armed Forces,” but it still finds a fanciful tone. To help his daughter keep track of his days at sea, the father builds a long paper chain which they hang on the living room wall. “Take off one circle every night,” he tells his daughter Emily. “I’ll come back when the chain is gone.” The book finds a way to make the girl’s feelings tangible. The little girl hides the chain under her bed, and hopes that will make her father stay home.
It’s a dramatic story, but all the drama comes from the little girl’s sadness over her father’s departure. He says he doesn’t want to leave “the two most special people in the world,” but even when he was still at home, the girl remembered that “I missed Dad before he even left.” Some days he lives with the family in “a blue house with an American flag on the porch.” But other days he lives “with pilots, like himself, and sailors on a U.S. Navy ship carrying rows of airplanes.”
And despite the sad subject matter, there’s also some sweet moments. The little girl discovers her dad was on TV – since her mother had videotaped the father reading a bedtime story before he left. In the first circle on the paper chain, the father had written “I love you.” He sends the family an email every day from the ship. And the girl even discovers a new friend in town who’s father is also away on a long Navy cruise. “Suddenly, I didn’t feel so alone…”
The girls trace their father’s journey on a map of the world. And perhaps fittingly, the end of the journey seems to arrive surprisingly fast. The girls paint “Welcome Home” signs to hang for his return. And of course, there’s a happy ending. “There he is , Emily!” yells the little girls mother. The father removes his helmet and strolls out of his airplane, and he’s carrying a bouquet of flowers. The end is predictable, but it’s still very satisfying.
He says to his daughter that “The chain is gone, and your dad is home.”