Every now and then I read a book that stays in my head long after I’ve put it down. I’m a children’s librarian, so often the books that affect me in this way are geared toward children. It takes great skill to write a high-quality children’s book; to capture dynamic renderings of the complexities of the human condition in a limited number of words, pages and images. Children’s literature (at least, good children’s literature) is more akin to poetry than narrative fiction in that way.
Waiting for the Whales?by Sheryl McFarlane is one of those books. This award-winning picture book illustrated by Ron Lightburn captures the voyage of a lonely old man who is content to garden quietly and watch the whales, to a grandfather who shares his love of the ocean and earth with his granddaughter. Spoiler alert: the man passes away at the end of the book, but only after having imparted upon his successors the wisdom of his years and the stewardship of the home they shared. He is no longer lonely, and the book hints at the circular nature of our reality on earth with the birth of a new baby whale to the pod of killer whales.
I suppose I don’t need to point out the irony that this story, which beautifully elucidates the the circle of life and a return to nature, is available through a digital mechanism (tablet technology) that since its invention has been blamed for the decline in quality of human relationships and connection to the earth, sea and air. The more I work with my colleagues (I train children’s librarians to use apps in storytimes in a way that supports early literacy development) the more I realize that the format of the book doesn’t matter; what matters is that we read good books with our children and the children we serve in our communities, and then we put the books down, and we go out into the world understanding things a little better, or even more importantly, understanding how much we DON’T understand.
Good books make you question yourself and your understanding of the world. They show you a piece of what is and what could be, and they inspire you to go forth a little more willing to truly engage with each other and the planet we call home. This one is available through Bookboard. Cuddle up, read it with your favorite little person, and if you can, take a walk near the ocean, in a forest, through the park or just down the street. Notice the natural beauty around you, and point it out to your child. Great children’s books can help us become better parents, and to re-focus our energy from the fast paced adult world most of us inhabit to the slower, simpler pace that our children naturally gravitate toward. That’s where the magic happens, and that’s where good books can take us.
In an award-winning Canadian book, an old man’s sense of harmony with the orcas (killer whales) he observes from his clifftop later helps his family accept his death. The man is a gardener whose pleasures are raising an overabundance of vegetables and watching the orcas’ seasonal return. When his daughter and her baby come, unexpectedly, to live with him, he’s gruff at first, but he and his granddaughter form a close, companionable bond. In time, she and her mother take over the garden; when the old man dies just as the orcas return, the mother suggests that his “spirit has gone to leap and swim with the whales.” Next summer, spotting a calf swimming by its mother, the child is convinced that this is true. The gentle, distancing tone is reflected in softly detailed color-pencil art, with careful compositions and dramatic shadows that pay tribute to Van Allsburg, though the mood here is stability rather than dynamic tension. Poetic and comforting.