Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Diving Toward The Right Choice

When you've lived in a state like Michigan filled with lakes and rivers your entire life, learning to swim is a necessity.  For some swimming on the water is much easier than it is for others.  Those who struggle with this might find swimming under water more enjoyable.  It's an entirely different experience.

Using a mask, snorkel and fins you can explore between the surface and the depths.  If you make the choice to forego the snorkel, it's as if you are actually one of the many inhabitants of this world.  Your lungs will consistently remind you to seek the surface and breathe.  The Boy And The Whale (Roaring Brook Press, November 21, 2017) written and illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein is about a child of the sea faced with a difficult decision.

Every day, I loved to watch the sun rise out of the sea.  

No matter how many sunrises you've seen, no two are rarely alike. A boy greeting the sea and sun one morning is greatly surprised at what he sees.  A large something is drifting on the surface of the water.  His father quickly decides it's a whale.

Nearing the giant animal in their boat, both the boy and his father are distressed but for different reasons.  The whale is tangled in a net.  Papa wants to save their fishing net, a means for them to make a living and survive.  His son wants to save the whale, if it's alive.

As father and son dive into the water and swim around the whale, the boy recalls nearly drowning when he was caught in a net.  Their net is ruined.  Just when the boy can't hold his breath another second the whale blinks its eye open.

As they head back to shore, Papa has his mind on one thing, finding another net.  Once there he leaves his son, advising him to not attempt saving the nearly dead animal.  Remembering how he felt snared in the woven ropes, the boy makes the only choice he can.  He heads back out to the whale.

It's an enormous task for one small boy, a boy who has to breathe.  He works with his small knife, cutting and diving and cutting and diving.  How much time has passed?  Is time standing still?  Finally standing in his boat,  the silent sea stretches before the boy.  An immense being leaps from the water and plunges down again, over and over, pure bliss filling the boy, the sea, the air and the day.

Told in the first person by the boy, Mordicai Gerstein weaves together a simple but beautiful blend of thoughts and conversations.  The sincerity of the boy's musings, the word choices Gerstein makes, takes readers immediately into the story.  It begins with the first sentence.  Even though we can't watch the sun rise out of the sea, if the clouds are gone we see a sunrise regardless of where we are. We may never know a life like this boy's life but we are connected to his heart.  Here is a passage.

The whale's eye was as big as my head.
It seemed to see me.
And then it blinked!
And I had to . . .

When you open the dust jacket you are treated to an entire image extending from the left page edge to the right page edge. (I am working with an F & G.) The size of the whale compared to that of the boy and his boat is astounding.  In viewing this illustration you get a sincere sense of the extent of the whale's problem and the job facing the boy.

On the title page just a sliver of pink is tinting the horizon as smoky clouds frame the upper right and left of the scene.  Mountains spike up and down beneath the clouds on the left.  The sea spreads across the remainder of the page reflecting the retreating darkness.  Gentle waves wash upon the sandy shore and against the family's boat.

A page turn reveals the verso and first page and a spectacular sunrise on the sea.  The boy stands on the shore noticing the large thing in the water caught in a ray of the sun.  Mordicai Gerstein shifts his picture sizes, two together as if in a photograph album, single pages, double pages and two pictures on a single page.  He even has two vertical visuals inviting the turning of the book.

His paintings are loosely framed in wide strokes of yellow, green and a wash of sea blue colors.  Other pictures extend page edge to page edge.  Through the facial expressions of the characters and the placement of elements in his artwork, the emotions found in this story leave the page and envelope us.

One of my many favorite illustrations is a close-up of the boy, Abelardo, working with his knife to cut away the net.  He is right next to the whale whose single eye is losing all signs of life.  The look on Abelardo's face as he holds the net in one hand and the knife in the other hand is of grim determination.  It's as if he knows he has to repay the saving of his life with the saving of this whale's life.

A part of the original list at The Horn Book, Calling Caldecott, The Boy And The Whale written and illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein reminds us of the mastery of this author illustrator.  In this tale we are reminded of the fragility of life but also the value in taking care of each other.  The final conversation of Papa and Abelardo will resonate with readers long after the book is finished and it will prompt them to read it multiple times.  I highly recommend this title for your professional and personal collections.  I think it would pair nicely with Trapped! A Whale's Rescue by Robert Burleigh with illustrations by Wendell Minor.

To discover more about Mordicai Gerstein and his other work, please follow the link attached to his name to access his website.  At the publisher's website you can view some of the stunning interior pages. In a November 4, 2016 chat with Roger Sutton at The Horn Book, Mordicai Gerstein talks about his current book release but you also gain insight into his entire process for each book and his life dedicated to making picture books.  I hope you enjoy this video below.  It uses this title frequently.


  1. This book looks gorgeous. Thank you so much for this thoughtful review! Looking forward to reading.

    1. Dear Miriam~ It is gorgeous. I hope you are able to read a copy soon.