The Stranded Whale – A Tale by Jane Yolen
The Stranded Whale
by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Melanie Cataldo
Candlewick Press (2015)
The Stranded Whale is a moving, honest book by Jane Yolen, a master storyteller, winner of the Caldecott Medal for Owl Moon and the author of the How Do Dinosaurs [Say Goodnight, etc.] series.
This picturebook delivers a story of a beached whale. A trio of children first spot it, a great gray shape looming on the beach as the tide goes out, and they spring into action, doing all they can to keep it wet with their sweaters, dowsed with seawater, while they call for more help. A number of adults respond to the call to try to save the whale.
But there’s no way around the fact that this is a tragic tale.
The Stranded Whale serves to instill respect for the dignity of whales, while acknowledging the reality that thousands die each year from mysterious beachings.
It invites deeper conversation about marine life and what can be done to protect them, which is the instinct of children and the natural response to this story.
And for adults, it invites a consideration of the question of books that don’t resolve with happy endings. Recently, Kate DiCamillo addressed this in a piece for Time.com. DiCamillo is the two-time Newbery award-winning author of Because of Winn-Dixie and The Tale of Despereaux. She was responding to a question posed by another children’s book author, Matt de la Peña, who wrote about the importance of including the darker sides of life in stories for children. He posed this question to DiCamillo. “Is the job of the writer for the very young,” Peña asked, “to tell the truth or preserve innocence?”
DiCamillo responded with this in a piece titled “Why Children’s Books Should Be a Little Sad“:
“You asked how honest we, as writers of books for children, should be with our readers….
“Here’s a question for you: Have you ever asked an auditorium full of kids if they know and love Charlotte’s Web? In my experience, almost all of the hands go up. And if you ask them how many of them cried when they read it, most of those hands unabashedly stay aloft.”
The Stranded Whale is one such story. As Yolen says in an Afterword, “It’s important for the story that despite their efforts, the children have to watch the whale die. Because the truth is that the majority of such strandings do end in death.” She ends with the positive message that perhaps this new understanding might inspire to the young (fictional) narrator to go to college and to study marine biology.
The life of animals in the wild is not all happiness and freedom. There are many dangers. As humans, we can learn to help, and help better the next time if our first efforts fail.
This is the important message of this insightful book.
[Review by Philip Martin, director of Crickhollow and Crispin Books of Milwaukee, publisher of the WAKA series of picturebooks about children around the world involved in wild animal rescue projects.]