Barbara DaCosta and Ed Young aren’t new to collaboration. In 2012, she wrote and he illustrated Nighttime Ninja, her debut picture book. Mighty Moby, on shelves in early August, is their second collaboration, and it came to exist in a way not typical for most picture books, what the author calls “an unusual method” and “backward.”

Evidently, Ed Young created the story, based on Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick, in illustrations. Following that, Barbara wrote words for the images, basing some of the verses in her text on sea ballads and chanteys. The story ends with a surprise twist, what author and illustrator call in the closing Author’s Note “an element of childhood adventure-fantasy.” Just as sailors in whaleboats are rocking on the waves, fearful of the rumbling from the sea, and just as the mammoth whale shoots from the water, the whole thing is interrupted by an adult’s hand and the turning of a faucet.

Turns out a child was putting a blooming imagination to work during playtime in the tub. “Hey!” the child declares. “My story’s not done yet!” This surprise turn in the narrative is abrupt – but in a satisfying and delightfully surprising way.  And five spreads are devoted to this; it’s not at all rushed and eventually leads to a bed-time scenario. (“Good night, little sailor,” says a grown-up assumed to be a parent. Note the whale mobile hanging from the child’s ceiling.)

Ed Young has rendered this in cut-paper collage—he throws in photographs, string, pastels, and more—and the whole thing could be a study in line. There are a lot of vertical lines, the kind that suggest strength, given this massive, intimidating whale. But there are a whole heapin’ lot of diagonal lines too, which help provide movement and are so stimulating to the readers’ eye. Action and tension are the name of the game here; the reader hardly takes a breath until the twist ending. It’s a page-turner.

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Young also alternates horizontal spreads with vertical ones. Readers will turn the book sideways on nearly every other spread to take in the top-to-bottom orientation. It’s as if we readers are topsy-turvy upon the ocean waves ourselves, chasing a whale. Young also places readers right in the center of the action on some spreads, as if we’re on the ship, scrambling while the one-legged captain shouts to “hurry, my sailors! Hurry! To your boats—we’ll give chase!” It could easily be disorienting to readers, this close perspective and these bustling spreads, but in this case, it really works. These choices work to make the reader feel a bit anxious, even somewhat distressed. And a harpoon in the pages of a picture book has never been so breathtaking.

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It’s also a book that leaves a fair amount of puzzling-out to the reader. What exactly is pictured on the endpages, which are light brown, textured, and also seem to be filled with movement? Is it some fuzzy, distant seascape? Some sort of severely altered photograph or drawing? Or actually the surface of a whale? Also, which word is it that the author does not draw from Moby Dick? She states in the Author’s Note that she …

used some of the many styles of writing found in Moby Dick, and drew all but one
of her words from it (readers will have to figure out which one it is!).…

I venture to say that readers will enjoy doing the guesswork involved. Maybe they’ll even be inspired to pick up a copy of Melville’s tome themselves. One day, that is. If any picture book can inspire that, this one can.

Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.

MIGHTY MOBY. Text copyright © 2017 by Barbara DaCosta. Illustration copyright © 2017 by Ed Young and reproduced by permission of the publisher, Little, Brown and Company, New York.