You might be reaching for a large stick wondering how it got in your yard, only to discover it's a garter snake of granddaddy proportions. One Sunday morning this past October while standing in our new backyard, Xena and I were both shocked to see a large fox trotting down the sidewalk across the street carrying a morning meal in its jaws. In these moments of awareness we are reminded all forms of life are sharing the same space.
Sometimes these appearances come not only when we least expect them but when we need them the most. Dario and the Whale (Albert Whitman & Company, March 1, 2016) written by debut picture book author Cheryl Lawton Malone with illustrations by Bistra Masseva is about a unique bond formed between a boy and a whale calf. In a desire to belong, connections can come from places other than where we are looking.
when the sun
wakes up the land,
Dario and his mother
move to the seashore.
They are not the only ones moving to the north. A whale and her baby are swimming in the same direction. Each parent is compelled to make this change based upon need.
Unbeknownst to each other, the boy and the whale are going through similar episodes in their desire to call this new place home. Dario inadvertently destroys a sand castle being constructed by a girl on the beach. A green turtle is the recipient of a big bump courtesy of the whale. That is intentional.
In the afternoon, Dario, alone, racing along the beach flying a kite sees the whale breach the water. The whale sees Dario. Time stands still as they gaze at each other. Both Dario and the whale excitedly reach out to their mothers with the news of this sighting.
In the following days Dario and the whale search for each other on the beach and in the water, devising signals; a whistle, a wave of hands, a spout or a breach. Shared hours fill their mornings and afternoons. When Dario is kept away from the shore, he worries the whale will not be there when he returns especially after comments made by the castle-making girl. In minutes of remarkable clarity the boy receives an answer.
Sparked by a real life event Cheryl Lawton Malone writes with the sure knowledge this kind of contact can bring. In a poetic cadence she traces the similarities between the boy and the young whale comparing the two until the defining connection. Her word choices are specific and easily understood by the youngest of readers.
Interspersed in the English narrative are words spoken by Dario in his native language. These help readers to further understand how Dario feels in a place far from home. Malone is careful to define their meaning in the context of the story. Here is another sample passage.
"Wow!" Dario shouts.
"Mae, venha ver!"
Ma, come look!
The whale slaps the water with his tail.
His mother hurries over.
Opening the matching dust jacket and book case readers become fully aware of the splendor of being so close to a whale. The whale's body extends beyond the spine with its tale raised high above the water. A seagull has braked in flight to avoid the splash. This illustration is fully alive, sending off the sounds of the shore, ocean and the happiness experienced by both the whale and the boy. The color from the text, spine and water is carried to the opening and closing endpapers.
On the title page beneath the words two whale tails are breaching the water. The verso and first page feature an illustration of Dario and his mother walking along the boardwalk on the bay. Behind them are the sandy shore, the water, rocky stretches of land and a lighthouse. Seagulls glide on the air currents as a ship moves in the distance. Illustrator Bistra Masseva transports us to the setting with this initial image.
Most of the pictures span two pages with varying perspectives. In one we are a seagull watching the whales arrive at the bay. In another we are the whale watching Dario. We may be Dario sitting on the beach looking in earnest for the whale. To enhance the pacing Masseva selects to create a series of smaller visuals or do single page comparisons. With each image we are deeply aware of the emotional moods through facial features and body movements.
One of my favorite illustrations is of the two whales swimming north to the bay. Having never seen whales outside of an aquarium I can only imagine the sight of seeing them in the wild. To see them from above, shapes partially above and beneath the vastness of the ocean is breathtaking. The subtle shades of the water convey the ever-changing nature of the seas. A lone seagull flies toward the lower left hand corner of this double-page image.
Illustrator Bistra Masseva graciously replied to an email inquiry about her work. Here is what she has to say.
Images always appear in my head the moment I start reading the manuscript, forming a sequence much like the frames of a film.
How many years has it been since you and your dog were a part of that magic until the publication of this book?
DARIO's launch date is March 1, 2016. In 2011, I participated in a writing retreat at the Norman Mailer House, Provincetown, MA, sponsored by the Norman Mailer Writer's Colony. The kind people who ran that program allowed me to bring my dog Chief, which is why we found ourselves on Race Point Beach very early one April morning. Whales of all kinds migrate through the Cape at that time of year, including the very rare and very endangered North Atlantic whale. Seeing their spouts and tails in the distance was common. Coming face to face with a juvenile right whale immediately off shore was EXTRAORDINARY! Unfortunately, I lost Chief later in 2011 after a difficult illness. I consider that month in Ptown as one of my great life experiences. Not only did he and I get to meet a real live whale but those were Chief's last happy days. To share that extraordinary experience with such a kind friend was unforgettable.