I have no doubt it’s hard to write what picture book author George Shannon, for one, calls “quiet picture books,” the ones that are contemplative and introspective. The challenge is to keep the pace of such stories compelling and to keep them from being, as Shannon writes, “lifeless.”
Cue poet and author Julie Fogliano and Caldecott Medalist Erin E. Stead. With last year’s And Then It’s Spring, they presented such a well-crafted, quiet book, it could be considered a case study in such endeavors. Now they’re back with If You Want to See a Whale, another exquisite story of waiting and wonder.
“[I]f you want to see a whale / you will need a window,” the book opens. As in their previous book, Fogliano gives readers what is essentially a poem, Stead’s challenge being to bring these inviting and abstract words to life with concrete details. In this case, she chooses a young boy—his dog and an ever-present bird as his companions. It is the boy who seeks the whale. He needs time, patience and focus. It’s hard when there are such things in this life as pink, sweet roses, clouds floating by and mysterious ships at sea with “possible pirates.” Fogliano writes with tenderness and humor (“pelicans who sit and stare can never be a whale”). She evokes the beauty and mystery of the boy’s world, capturing a child’s awe without being cloying.
Stead’s primarily pastel-colored illustrations, rendered via linoleum printing and pencil, are finely detailed and endear readers to the boy and his mission. Uncluttered and with ample white space on many spreads, they let this story breathe, fitting for a tale of the big and little wonders of life. Despite all the boy’s interruptions, there is a whale sighting in this book, and Stead renders it so majestically that I literally took in my breath when I turned the page. (And don’t forget to pull off the book’s jacket to see the whale on the cloth cover!)
Sparks fly when these two join forces. Quiet sparks. Here’s hoping they continue to collaborate.