The Fisherman and the Whale

Cover of The Fisherman and the WhaleIt seems many book creators of late are fascinated — and justifiably concerned — by increasingly frequent news about injured, captive, and entangled whales. This has resulted in a wealth of gorgeously illustrated books featuring observant, empathetic child characters who, in various ways, perform acts of environmental stewardship. Think Troy Howell and Richard Jones’s Whale in a Fishbowl (2018); Benji Davies’s The Storm Whale (2014) and its sequel; and Mordicai Gerstein’s The Boy and the Whale (2018). Jessica Lanan’s authorial debut, The Fisherman and the Whale, successfully combines elements of many of these books to create a quietly powerful story all her own that may very well get the attention of the Caldecott committee this year.

Lanan advises in her author’s note that her book be read as a fable rather than a manual for whale rescue. This is good information, especially considering her admission of artistic license in representing the characters' fishing technique (“purse seining,” which actually requires multiple boats). This is a book designed to capture readers’ curiosity and emotions and inspire them to seek out further reading. It is a book with an agenda — and it is also breathtaking.

The book stands apart with its glossy paper and textured, wet-look watercolor and gouache illustrations in a range of muted cool colors , as well as its large, almost square, trim size (just over 11”x10”) and well-considered, full-bleed perspective shifts and evocative angles throughout. The first of several vertical spreads highlights how much ocean there is, as well as just how much of that space the trap lines occupy. Rich turquoises and indigos flood the underwater spreads, with variegated light brushstrokes creating a light-dappled effect on the underside of the water’s surface. Red, orange, pink, and brown shades — more prominent in the pages that center the humans — complement the deep blues.

The front endpapers depict a bearded adult figure and child standing on a wooden dock, facing what looks like the open sea beyond their sheltered, tree-lined cove. In the next spread, these figures appear once more on the recto, standing on the deck of a small boat as choppy waves, seabirds, and a pink-gray sky on the verso herald an impending storm. The back endpapers depict an underwater reunion between the whale and a smaller whale, paralleling the fisherman and his child. In these endpapers, the whales cross the gutter facing “backwards,” toward the preceding pages rather than out of the book, while the humans in front occupy the recto, facing into the book.

[Read the Horn Book Magazine review of The Fisherman and the Whale.]

Over the course of the narrative, readers join the humans on the deck (and, later, in the boat's cockpit), as well as the entangled whale looking up at the water’s surface. Lanan expertly utilizes air frames (white space that surrounds a picture) and simultaneous succession to emphasize distinct moments amidst the action. Of particular note is a poignant page-opening in which the human and the trapped whale “face” one another, positioned so that they each look directly out from the page at the reader. The book’s wordless format is itself noteworthy for a nonfiction-inspired book. Not only does it function as a beginner graphic novel, with characters’ gestures and expressions clear across single illustrations and full spreads, it also leaves readers to interpret the androgynous figure of the child as they wish. (Lanan’s wordless text never genders the characters, though the flap copy refers to both as male.) In addition, while the fisherman does the actual rescuing, it is the observation and persistent “voice” of the child that calls his attention to the problem and leads him to take action. The characters’ faces and body language communicate the tension in that moment so clearly that no words are necessary.

This is the point at which I come closest to considering this book a fable: the humans’ courageous rescue of the whale — celebrated with a dramatic breach scene, which the whale’s rescuers observe in awe — echoes the aid Aesop’s mouse provides the lion. Lanan’s whale does not return the favor of saving a life, though. The storm never hits, and once the rescue has been completed, the sky turns a warm yellow and then pink, with a glorious purple sunset. This ending suggests a new moral: helping others is worthwhile, regardless of whether you receive anything in return (and sometimes your reward may be a moment of sheer awe and appreciation for nature). I do wonder how the committee will respond to Lanan’s note about reading this story as a fable, however. Will they appreciate the clarification, or discount it because the story was inaccurate enough to require such clarification?

A final note: the boat’s name, Pastora, translates to “shepherdess” in Spanish, which feels appropriate for a story in which humans act as caretakers of ocean creatures. Lanan’s attention to details like this really makes this book shine.

 

Sabrina Montenigro
Sabrina Montenigro

Sabrina Montenigro’s background in art and education informs her work as a reviewer for Kirkus and as a bookseller at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. She recently completed an M.A. in Children’s Literature at Simmons University and remains active in the field of children’s literature scholarship.

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