Quote of the Month

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

Monday, October 8, 2018

Majestic Matriarch

You think your respect cannot elevate.  You believe nothing else can astonish you.  New information astounds you.  Your admiration climbs.  You realize, yet again, we share this planet with incredible beings. Their very existence, in the light of constant changes and challenges, is nearly miraculous.

Orcas, the largest member of the dolphin family, also known as killer whales are endangered according to the U. S. Endangered Species Act.  This is specific to those orcas found in the southern resident community off the state of Washington.  (They are also protected under the Canadian Species at Risk Act as their range extends to British Columbia.)  In Wild Orca: The oldest, wisest whale in the world (Christy Ottaviano Books, Henry Holt and Company, September 18, 2018) written by Brenda Peterson with illustrations by Wendell Minor readers, through the voice of a young girl, meet Granny, an orca believed to have lived 105 years.

On the longest day of summer light,
Mia waits for Granny to join them for Orca Song. 

She is joined by her parents and other people gathered on the San Juan Island.  Granny, an elder matriarch, guides three pods. They are named by scientists as pods J, K, and L.  To put her approximated age in perspective she was alive before the Titanic met its fate. 

Granny and the orcas in these three pods communicate with a series of whistles.  Each orca's pod, if you listen carefully, is identified by their whistles.  Mia and her father, a scientist working at the Lime Kiln Point research lab, place a hydrophone in the water to listen for the approach of the orcas, especially Granny.  Orcas use their whistles to detect food and danger.

Drummers drum.  Singers sing.  They wait for the orcas on a hillside overlooking the water.  Mia is worried.  There are dangers to orcas, most of them manmade.  It's even harder for the young.

They are taught how to breathe and are lead in travel by the oldest female.  Granny has been caring for her group for more than one hundred years.  Thankfully when she can't help a member of one of the pods, there are humans ready to assist.  Where is Granny now?

Suddenly the air is filled with whistles.  Dorsal fins skim along the water.  It's a memorable display of acrobatics and song. 

Through her words fashioned from research and a passion for preservation Brenda Peterson supplies us with information about orcas while blending in a tradition seen through a specific child and her parents.  Brenda Peterson uses a pleasing mix of narrative, thoughts and conversation to honor Granny and her pods.  Sound effects are skillfully inserted into the story to welcome readers to this place and time.  Here are several passages.

"It's a superpod!" Mia calls.
J, K, and L pods---all visiting together.
"And there's another new baby!"

Near shore, family pods greet each other.
Headstands and flips.
Wild cartwheels over waves.
Orcas slapping their fins. Ker-splash!

Rolling and bumping one another,
orcas blow and breach.
Burp and chirp.
Spin and spyhop.
Just to peek around.

All the splendor of the arrival of Granny and her pods is portrayed on the opened, matching dust jacket and book case.  The grace and grandeur of these spectacular creatures vividly stretches from left to right in a stunning display. Can you hear the splashing, whistles and calls of the seabirds? The details in the artwork, paintings of Wendell Minor, are breathtaking.

When you view the matching opening and closing endpapers you cannot help but marvel at the mastery of Wendell Minor's illustrations. It's a map of the western portion of Washington State and British Columbia, Canada.  In color it shifts, right to left, from a blended golden-green to green as it gets closer to the islands and then to the blue hues of the Pacific Ocean.  The islands, including Waldron Island, Orcas Island, Blakely Island, Decatur Island, Lopez Island, Shaw Island, and San Juan Island are shown in proportion to the surrounding area but are also enlarged in a square in the upper left-hand corner. The Lime Kiln Point State Park and Lime Kiln Lighthouse are represented, too.  It will take your breath away when you try to understand how Wendell placed Granny over this with the map showing through the center section of her body. 

The verso and title pages are an image of the lighthouse, ocean, rocky shore, Mia and her parents and several orcas.  The sky and water nearly mirror one another.  Wendell has a gift for helping us to feel the emotional and actual atmosphere, weather, at any given moment.

Each illustration, full page and double-page, is a study in the human participants, the natural setting and the orcas.  Rendered in gouache watercolor on Strathmore 500 Bristol paper each picture uses light and shadow to convey particular moments.  There is softness when necessary and a bolder line and shades when depicting the orcas underwater or skimming and playing on the surface.  A vertical foldout will have you gasping.

One of my many, many favorite illustrations is when we get close to the pods upon their arrival.  It spans across two pages.  The pale skyline is perfect for the placement of the words and a single orca breaching on the left between the texts.  Beneath this the other orcas are moving left to right, gliding on the surface, blowing, leaping, and spyhopping.  The water is blue-green and white with waves and splashes.  This is an exhibition of sheer joy.

Wild Orca: The oldest, wisest whale in the world written by Brenda Peterson with paintings by Wendell Minor is a beautiful tribute in language and art to one of the most enduring and endearing creatures seen on our planet.  It draws attention to how the orcas live, their plight and their habitat.  I highly recommend this book for your personal and professional collections.  Brenda Peterson highlights Granny and orcas on two pages at the end of the book.

To discover more about Brenda Peterson and Wendell Minor and their other work, please follow the links attached to their names to visit their respective websites.  You will find lots of extra articles and images at Brenda's site.  At the publisher's website you can view interior images.  Both Brenda and Wendell have Twitter accounts.


  1. How wonderful--a biography of an orca!

    1. Yes, Annette! I am so grateful we are keeping track of these marvelous creatures.