November 17, 2017

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Whale Watching|Those Magnificent—and Vulnerable—Leviathans

Stunningly illustrated and eloquently written, the picture books featured here trawl the ocean depths to shed light on these magnificent and mysterious marine mammals. Included are informational texts and fictional stories, all of which utilize child-grabbing formats to inform, intrigue, and inspire young readers. Kids will be swept into the action as they learn about various whale species and comprehend the vital necessity of looking after these animals and their precious habitat. Use these materials to supplement animal and nature units, and have students consider how these imaginative books differ from more straightforward informational texts.

thestrandedwhaleVulnerable Leviathans
Two poignant picture books tell tales about whales in peril and the caring people who try to help, stressing the critical connection between individuals and animals and underscoring the sway humans hold over the fate of even the most giant of creatures. In both, the effective pairing of descriptive text and evocative artwork make the events seem intimate and impactful, while providing the impetus for further research on whale rescues.

It’s September of 1971 when Sally and her two brothers make a startling discovery as they walk home from school along the dunes of their seaside town in Maine. The Stranded Whale (Candlewick, Aug. 2015; Gr 1-4) lies on its side on the drying sand, the ocean receding to the east with the ebbing tide. The children rush to the water’s edge, soaking their sweaters in the cold Atlantic and then rushing to the helpless animal to wring the garments out on eye, tail, and fins. Josh makes a call from the beach’s emergency phone, and, 20 minutes later, adult volunteers and the Coast Guard arrive, but despite desperate efforts, the whale’s fate is sealed. Angry, frustrated, and stricken with grief, Sally sits by its side, until it closes its eye and gives “out a huge sigh like wind off the ocean.” Jane Yolen’s narrative is lyrical and emotion-filled. Melanie Cataldo’s impressionistic gray-and-sea-green paintings are expansive (showing pulled-back scenes of the setting) and intimate (Sally crouches close to the whale’s eye, her compassion writ on her face). An author’s note explains this fictional story’s time frame (no cell phones for instant information sharing) and provides information about cetacean beachings.

trappedRobert Burleigh and Wendell Minor present a reader-rousing recounting of an actual event that took place on December 11, 2005, off the San Francisco shoreline. Striking paintings merging realism with water-splashed verve and stirring text depict a humpback whale in glorious motion as she “dips and dives” through the open ocean, travels from “icy Arctic seas to the California coast,” and “arches and leaps” above the surface of the sea. The breathtaking journey of this beautiful behemoth is stopped short when she becomes Trapped! (Charlesbridge, 2015; K-Gr 4) in unseen nets left by crab fishermen, her flailing struggle to escape causing the spidery lines to tighten around her, cut into her skin, and restrict her movements and ability to surface to breath. Rescue divers arrive on the scene, working carefully to aid an animal that can crush with one “quick role of her immense body,” or kill with a “blow from her gigantic tail.” Finally, the whale is free, and gently nudges each of her human helpers before breaching and slapping the water’s surface in jubilant farewell. Endnotes provide more detail about the actual event, humpbacks, and the dangers of rescuing whales, along with print and internet resources.

herecomethehumpbacksOcean Journey
Here Come the Humpbacks!
(Charlesbridge, 2013; Gr 1-4) follows a mother and calf as they make a 1,700 mile, months-long migration from the warm Caribbean waters to the flourishing summertime feeding grounds in the Gulf of Maine. April Pulley Sayre’s action-filled narrative and Jamie Hogan’s vibrant paintings convey information about physical characteristics, behaviors, and habitats with the page-turning excitement of a story as the humpbacks swim through open seas, navigate busy shipping lanes, and survive an encounter with five hungry orcas. The broad, eye-catching spreads glisten with grainy textures and marine hues, adding to the book’s potency as a read-aloud, and smaller-font text expands upon the ideas presented. Unforgettable moments include a flipper-raised clash between an escort whale and male challengers, a pod working in sync to release bubbles and herd fish together (“Mouths meet fish, and pleated throats stretch wide”), and the mother lunging across the water to feed with mouth open wide. Supplement this stirring informational text with videos of these amazing animals such as a National Geographic offering about the general characteristics of North Pacific humpback whales, a look at whales bubble-netting off the Massachusetts coast, or an array of crystalline clips depicting various species behaviors. Have students make comparisons between the images and info presented in these videos and those portrayed in the book.

followingpapaIn Gianna Marino’s fictional picture book, a whale calf worries about making the long migration up the coast to the summer feeding grounds, peppering patient Papa with anxious questions (“Are we going far?…How will we know which way to go?…How do you swim so fast?”).” Hearing the far-off song of other whales, parent and child set off, and Little Blue dives down to explore the magical world below, deep green ocean depths that are “cold/and dark/and silent.” Wonder turns to fear, until Little Blue, listening carefully, realizes that finding the way is as easy as Following Papa’s Song (Viking, 2014; K-Gr 4). Done on textured paper, the exquisite mixed-media paintings are infused with motion and light, and the characters are depicted with both realism and emotional expression. Themes of burgeoning independence and the reassurance of parental love will resonate with children, while the invitingly communicated wonders of the journey and the open ocean will spark curiosity about whales and their habitat.

Share these two books in tandem and have students compare and contrast the content, writing style, and illustrations. How is information conveyed in each? What specific facts about whales are presented in both books? Have students research a particular whale species and write and illustrate a story about these animals that includes true facts.
thebluewhaleBig Blue
Jenni Desmond’s accessible text and warmheartedly whimsical paintings introduce the largest living animals on our planet. The narrative approach, which features a young boy perusing a book about The Blue Whale (Enchanted Lion, 2015; Gr 1-4)—this very volume, in fact, results in a truly kid-friendly presentation and point of view. Text and illustrations work together to bring amazing facts home with easy-to-digest comparisons. For example, the whale’s 160-ton weight is said to equal “a heap of 55 hippopotami” (the playful image shows the youngster perched atop a precarious-looking pile of these critters), it’s giant-size mouth is described as “so big that 50 people can stand inside it” (a group of individuals of all ages, skin tones, and levels of enthusiasm wave from within the gaping maw), and the amount of mother’s milk consumed daily by a calf is illustrated by 50 neatly lined up plastic jugs (the boy makes off with a gallon and enjoys a glassful on the next page). Not only are physical characteristics, behaviors, habitat, and conservation concerns touched upon, but the story also shimmers with a sense of awe and appreciation for these marvel-worthy mammals. The buoyant images that pair boy with beast just might foster an understanding of the importance of caretaking the natural world.

Then and Now
whaletrailsThe relationship between humans and these massive mammals has changed greatly in the last two centuries. In Lesa Cline-Ransome and G. Brian Karas’s Whale Trails: Before and Now (Holt/Christy Ottaviano Bks., 2015; Gr 1-4), the daughter of a modern-day whale boat captain compares her life to those of her ancestors generations ago. Now, enthusiastic passengers board the Cuffee with the hopes of spotting a humpback, finback, or minke whale during their journey off the Atlantic coast, but “before now, children were taught that these animals were dangerous sea creatures that devoured our fish supply and were good only for their baleen and blubber.” Left-hand pages describe present-day whale-watching practices and depict scenes in bright sky-blue hues, while the right-hand pages, illustrated in sepia tones, recount information about the 19th-century whaling industry, shipboard life (crews included “escaped slaves, and free blacks”), specialized tools, and products made from captured whales. Though families, tourists, and naturalists now make a three-hour journey circling the bay, whaling-boat crews once headed south around Cape Horn to the Pacific Ocean on expeditions that lasted as long as three years. This parallel approach makes an interesting way to convey facts about maritime history and to get kids thinking about how attitudes toward and interactions with whales have transformed through the years, as well as the importance of conservation efforts.

mochadickExpand your discussion by sharing Mocha Dick: The Legend and Fury (Creative Editions, 2014; Gr 3 Up), Brian Heinz’s thrilling story about the true-life creature that inspired Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. First spotted in 1810 in the waters around the island off the coast of Chile that gave the creature its name, Mocha Dick makes a reputation for himself by decimating a whale boat—hurling it into the air, clamping down on it with 26 rows of teeth (each “as long as a man’s hand”), and shaking his “huge head savagely until only splinters remained.”

The hunted becomes the hunter, as the giant sperm whale continues to attack and elude capture, sinking the 238-ton Essex in 1820, and sending other whaling vessels scurrying. When Mocha Dick finally succumbs to the efforts of three whale ships working in concert (after thrashing three smaller vessels and swallowing two men whole), his body exhibits the results of years of battle—six shattered teeth, one eye blinded, and 19 rusting harpoons embedded in his flesh. Succinct and action-packed, the poetic narrative brims with a blend of fact and literary fancy, drawing readers into this electrifying tale and effectively presenting the whale’s point of view. Bordered by nautical objects, patterns, and sea creatures, Randall Enos’s linocut illustrations are evocative of scrimshaw; the finely wrought lines and bold shapes depicti caricature-like humans and a majestic protagonist. Discuss with your students how the original sighting of Mocha Dick grew and evolved to take on legendary status, and why the topic continues to fascinate even today (In the Heart of the Sea, a PG-13-rated movie based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2000 nonfiction best-seller of the same title about the Essex, will be released in December).

The Common Core State Standards below are a sampling of those referenced in the above books and classroom activities:
RL.1.1. Ask and answer questions about key details in a text.
RL.1.5 Explain major differences between books that tell stories and books that give information, drawing on a wide reading of a range of text types.
RL. 3.7. Explain how specific aspects of a text’s illustrations contribute to what is conveyed by the words in a story.
RI. 1.1. Ask and answer questions about key details in a text.
RI. 1.9 Identify basic similarities and differences between two texts on the same topic (e.g., in illustrations, descriptions, or procedures).
RI. 2.6 Identify the main topic of a text, including what the author wants to answer, explain, or describe.
RI. 2.9. Compare and contrast the most important points presented by two texts on the same topic.
W.1.2. Write information/explanatory texts in which they name a topic, supply some facts about the topic, and prove some sense of closure.
W. 3.7 Conduct short research projects that build knowledge about a topic.
SL.1.2. Ask and answer questions about key details in a text read aloud….

Curriculum Connections

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Joy Fleishhacker About Joy Fleishhacker

Joy Fleishhacker is a librarian, former SLJ staffer, and freelance editor and writer who works at the Pikes Peak Library District in southern Colorado.

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