I love to keep my eye on picture book imports, those books originally published overseas and then brought here in American editions. It’s always intriguing to note which ones are chosen for English translations, what they’re like, and how they differ from American picture book titles.
One of the best I’ve seen this year was just released by Henry Holt and Company, The Storm Whale by Benji Davies, who evidently lives in London. In fact, this book was first published last year in the U.K. It’s a gentle story of friendship and family, sweet but never saccharine.
Noi is a young boy who lives with his dad (no mother in sight) and six cats by the sea. (Children, especially cat-lovers, will enjoy playing Spot the Kitten on the spreads, particularly the first one.) His father spends his days away from home on a fishing boat, while Noi hangs with the cats and tries to entertain himself. One day, Noi discovers a whale washed up on the shore. Noi is concerned and wants to help, so finally he drags the whale inside for some tub time. It’s here that readers start to sense the loneliness the boy feels, spending all his days in solitude. While the whale rests in the tub’s water, Noi tells it stories about island life. Noi is clearly pleased that the whale is such a good listener.
When night falls and his father returns, Noi does his best to hide the whale, but he knows it’s futile. Instead of scolding his son, however, his father gives him a giant bear hug, his face communicating the tender realization that he’s not been there for his son. And Davies pulls off this expressiveness with an impressive economy of line.
His father tells him they must return the whale to the sea, where it belongs. And on one spectacularly scaled, expansive spread, with Noi and his father in a tiny boat in the middle of the rocking sea and the whale diving deep back down into the waters, the author writes:
Noi knew it was the right thing to do, but it was hard to say good-bye. He was glad his dad was there with him.
BAM! So much communicated in two simple sentences. All the rest of the text is this spare and enticing. And the artwork is rendered in pleasing teals, light browns, and grays. The spread itself, where the whale is returned, is a wonder—dark blues, rolling waves, and father and son shining brightly with their backs to us in their vivid, yellow rain gear.
Oh, and to boot? There’s a fair amount of understated humor in this tale as well, such as when the boy tells stories to the whale, immersed deep in the tub and barely peeking out—yet we see a tiny, subtle spout of water emerge from his blowhole.
Best of all, children will cheer the reunion (or a whale-sighting that will just have to pass for a reunion) at the book’s close, not to mention the increased occurrences of father and son together.
There are a moderate amount of very loud, very busy picture books on the market, on any given day, and it’s refreshing to see such a genuinely sweet and poignant tale, never trying too hard. No bells and whistles, no over-the-top attempts to impress readers. Just a compelling tale of loneliness averted. And it is, as the Kirkus review so succinctly notes, “lightly dusted with believable magic.”
Endearing, elegantly conveyed. That about sums it up. Don’t let this import pass you by.
THE STORM WHALE. Copyright © 2013 by Benji Davies. First American Edition copyright © 2014. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher, Henry Holt and Company, New York.
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.