Childhood can be tough, despite the way it’s generally romanticized in American popular culture. For one thing, many adults tend to talk to children in a condescending manner, often denying them their own autonomy. This is a reality in two new children’s books on shelves, in which (for both books) a child’s wisdom is ignored and the child’s attentiveness, disregarded.
To be sure, this is a state of affairs we see often in children’s books—that is, the long-suffering wise child is looked over by the parents or other adult caretakers. But both of these books get it just right. Both also happen to be about mammoth creatures—one absurd and the other, entirely logical. And both stories, Mordicai Gerstein’s The Boy and the Whale and Sean Rubin’s Bolivar, are well worth your time.
Gerstein’s newest picture book is set in what could be the Caribbean or even somewhere else in Central America. It’s the tale of a boy and his father, who live and work near the sea. One day, at sunrise, they discover a whale tangled in the only fishing net they own. This distresses the father, given they don’t have enough money to purchase a new net. The boy is more concerned about the whale and wants to save it, but the father is convinced the whale is dead. They set out to save the net instead.
Unfortunately, the net is a “hopeless tangle.” As they attempt to salvage it anyway, the boy remembers a time he was caught in a net himself and nearly drowned; he recalls the “awful fear.” At the same time, in a beautiful, spine-tingling spread, the boy sees the whale’s large eye blink. The massive creature is alive.
The father dismisses the boy when he insists they save it. Besides, their net is altogether ruined, and it’d be too dangerous to try to free the dying whale. But, remembering the helplessness he once felt tangled in his own net, the boy’s conscience tells him, once his father is away, to head back out to try to free the animal.
Gerstein’s spreads, many bordered by a blithe, hopeful yellow, are dramatic, several broken into well-paced panels of action, such as the one where we see the whale “dancing” to thank the boy, who successfully frees the whale. (The boy also wonders if the creature is dancing “just for the joy of being free.”) The whale-saving moments are dramatic, as we witness the boy’s courage and, repeatedly, his pragmatic efforts just to get air: We see him swim back up to grab some more breaths. “Don’t die, Whale!” we read. “I’m doing my best!”
Gerstein’s palette is especially breathtaking, filled with warm ocean blues and luminescent yellows. We see panoramic ocean spreads, as well as more intimate close-ups of the boy, hard at work saving the creature. It’s an inspiring tale of bravery, exquisitely illustrated.
In Sean Rubin’s Bolivar, a picture book-graphic novel hybrid, we don’t just meet one or two adults who refuse to listen to a child. We meet an entire city filled with them — New York City, to be exact. They don’t believe a young girl named Sybil, binoculars often in hand, who claims to live next door to a dinosaur. Everyone, save smart, observant Sybil, is simply too distracted to notice the massive Bolivar in their midst. The Natural History Museum is even about to open an exhibit of dinosaur fossils, with new evidence about dinosaur extinction, making Bolivar’s presence even more absurd.
Shy, unassuming Bolivar roams the city, keeping to himself and avoiding attention. Real dinosaurs don’t want anyone to see them, we read, and so New York City, “the busiest city in the world,” is perfect. If everyone is hustling about, no one will bother him. But Sybil pays close attention to her surroundings, and she knows her neighbor is wildly unusual. (Yes, he rents an apartment: “When he had first moved into his apartment, the landlord was much too busy to even notice he was a dinosaur.”) The problem is that she can’t convince a single person to believe her, including her mother.
Thus begins her determined efforts to convince everyone to take her seriously alright already. When people finally realize that there’s a dinosaur loose in, all of the places, the National History Museum, chaos ensues, but Sybil stays strong and steadfast in her devotion. The over-the-top disregard the adults have for the obvious dinosaur in their presence works and will delight child readers. And the bond Sybil develops with Bolivar is tender and never cloying.
There’s a lot to pore over in the colorful and detailed crosshatched artwork in this over-200-page story, which seems very much a love letter to New York City. There’s humor and heart, and Sybil is an endearing, lovable protagonist. I look forward to what Rubin brings readers next.
Both are sweet, but never saccharine, stories of compassion. And stories in which, as is often the case, children know best.
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.
THE BOY AND THE WHALE. Copyright © 2017 by Mordicai Gerstein. Illustration used by permission of the publisher, Roaring Brook Press, New York.
BOLIVAR. Copyright © 2017 by Sean Rubin. Published by Archaia, a division of Boom Entertainment, Inc. Illustration used by permission of Sean Rubin.