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Sunday, 12 February 2017

The Storm Whale

Author and Illustrator: Benji Davies
Publisher: Simon Schuster, 2013

I'm not sure what to make of this book, it makes me feel quite uncomfortable, which is no bad thing- kid lit that's challenging; now there's a thing. Sharing this story with a child is fascinating, they see the world through the eyes of lead character, young boy Noi, so the whale washed up in the beach (of course it's alive), but as an adult, is the whale dead?! How dark is this book? 

From an adult's perspective, Noi lives in a remote area by the sea, his father is a hardworking fisherman with sole care of his son. Due to the nature of his job, he's away for long periods, sailing dangerous seas at considerable risk to his life. Noi has six cats for company; he might be lonely, he seems to have a big imagination. He wanders about on his own a lot. He craves the attention of his dad. He finds a dead or dying whale washed up in the beach, he takes the whale home and puts it in the bath. His dad arrives home, doesn't realise until late at night that the whale is in the bath. The dad is shocked, outraged, saddened, worried, he realises he's neglecting his son, spends time with his son (still needs to earn a livelihood though?!). He indulges his sons' fantasises about releasing the whale. Then there's a twist- father and son sit happily together having a picnic, looking out on the whale and his mother/ father swimming away. The whale has brought Noi and his father closer together, whatever. (The whale is a metaphor for a missing/ absent/ dead mother?) This book is about the complexity of love; love requires keeping things close (father- son) and at the same time, letting things go (boy-whale)? 

From the child's perspective: Noi has all day to play on the beach, he has a net and bucket and goes around exploring. He's a lucky boy (but, I quote my three year old, 'you can't see his smile though, so he might be a sad boy too'. Noi finds a poorly beached baby whale and so he tries to help him. Noi doesn't know how to help the whale but he tries his best (adult perspective: the dad tries his best with Noi but he doesn't know how to help/ connect with him either). Noi realises he needs to keep the whale wet, so he finds his radio flyer and carts the whale off home to the bath. 

 The whale is nursed and cared for in the bath by the boy. The boy has a new friend. The dad arrives back home. The boy keeps his new friend a secret from his dad. (I quote my five year old here: 'The dad finds the whale in the bath and says to Noi that whales can't live in bathtubs, but that they should be outside in the sea.') The dad and boy take the baby whale back to the sea and let him free. The whale finds his mum (my children all think the big whale is 'the mum'?!) , and the whales and the humans both live happily ever after. 

As such, Benji Davies is one seriously clever author to write a very simple picture book like this which supports two parallel readings, one for adults and one for children. The illustrations in The Storm Whale are reminiscent of those poe- faced boy images in the work of Alex Jefferies. This is an amazingly thoughtful and provocative book, with themes of loneliness; mortality; rescue; neglect, care and attention; imagination; friendship; freedom and capture. The book invites many readings, many themes and many discussions; it wouldn't be out of place in any primary school classroom, and in fact I've found some fantastic online resources to support reading or use in teaching:
The Storm Whale teaching ideas

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