if you want to see a whale

Focus – to the exclusion of everything else.

Being able to tune out any distractions or discouragements apart from the final goal can be accomplishment gold. But if it also means missing out on beautiful sights or moments along the way, the brilliant glow can become a burnished pallor.

This is the risk the main character takes in Julie Fogliano and Erin E. Stead’s picture book, if you want to see a whale.

On his journey to see the whale, the young boy, with his dog and a bird as companions, passes roses and pirate ships, pelicans and inch worms. He ignores them:

because roses don’t want you watching whales
or waiting for
or wondering about
things that are not pink
and things that are not sweet
and things that are not roses.

If the boy did not ignore the roses, he might have missed the whale that he finally finds on the last page. But he misses the turtle amidst the clouds, a comfy and cozy nap, the lighthouse atop the headland shaped like a whale.

Yet even with all this sacrifice, the boy still almost misses the whale. On the second to last page, he is so busy staring into the sea, he doesn’t see the whale pass right below his rowboat. Ultimately, it is the whale who breaks the surface and peers into the boy’s face.

While preparation and staying the course are essential to achieving goals, there is a certain element of chance that factors into the final result. And if we exclude all way points and detours, a failure at the termination point will be that much more crushing.

I suspect that Fogliano and Stead meant for this story to be a triumphant tale of setting one’s mind to something and seeing it through. And it is. There is a lot to be said for persistence and patience; for courage and consistency.

There is also the flip-side.

It makes me sad to see all the missed opportunities along the way for this young boy. It makes my soul ache for my own missed opportunities throughout any given day. The simple pleasures, invaluable gifts of the here and now. When goal-setting becomes tunnel-vision, mindfulness cannot occur.

If you want to see a whale, it’s pretty amazing. Just don’t miss out on what the waves wash up on the way.

Just one of the gorgeous illustrations.

Just one of the gorgeous illustrations.

Sky Magic

I grew up with many students who hated poetry.  Talented students.  Intelligent students.  Students who could write well themselves.  But understand what a poem was really saying?  And enjoy the process?  No way.

And then I became a teacher.  I worked with many teachers who avoided poetry, either because they had experiences similar to my former fellow students or because they figured their students would react in much the same way.

Somewhere between the playful lyricism of picture books and class study of extended texts, readers lose the magic of words, metaphor, and imagery, which is a missed opportunity for all.  Poetry uses words in beautiful and economical ways, providing teachable moments for literary terms and succinct expression.

That’s why when I find a children’s anthology of poetry, I am more than happy to check it out.  The latest one I’ve discovered is Sky Magic, a compilation by Lee Bennett Hopkins.  His volume, My America: A Poetry Atlas of the United States, with lovely illustrations by Stephen Alcorn, once part of my classroom library, is now part of the special collection I plan to share with my own children.  So I was eager to check out this other volume, illustrated by Mariusz Stawarski.

Every poem in Sky Magic evokes the dreamy nature of stargazing and sunny mornings.  Every one is accessible, even those written by ‘adult’ authors.  An excerpt from Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo mixes well with a poem by children’s author and poet Rebecca Kai Dotlich (whose poems in There’s No Place Like School, compiled by Jack Prelutsky, I love).  All are accessible because they use sparse language to tell stories.  All good poetry does so, through phrases and symbols, examples and metaphors.  And there is no child – young or old – who cannot appreciate a story.  Poetry anthologies made specifically for children have the added bonus of illustrations to add yet another dimension to the story.  Stawarski’s paintings are so evocative of dreamy days and nights, they bring figurative language to literal life.

Share a book such as Sky Magic with the young readers in your life – or the poetry phobes – and usher in the dawn of a new era: another form of storytelling and verbal vision accessible to all.


In the language of stars
lie stories of old
brilliant legends
told; retold.

Spelling out sagas,
spilling out light,
a mythical manuscript
filling the night.
– Avis Harley


It starts with a colorless world.

The only color comes from the belongings he’s brought with him to this foreign land.

An unsanctioned move, an unfamiliar school, and unknown classmates, who most certainly won’t become friends.

This is the bleak landscape in which a young boy finds himself at the beginning of the picture book, Neville, by Norton Juster.


At the beautifully gentle suggestion of his mother, he takes a walk down the street on the off chance of meeting someone.  Reaching the end of the block, he looks skyward and bellows a name.


Is this the name of a friend he’s left behind?  A pet who’s wandered off into this new neighborhood?

It’s unclear who he’s summoning, but first one, then a whole slew of children answer the call.  They all begin to seek out Neville without even knowing who he is.  Not exactly synchronized, but part of a collective effort to find this unknown friend.

“Hey, I don’t know anyone named Neville who lives around here.  Is he new?”

“I guess so,” the boy said uncertainly.  “Everyone has to be new sometimes, don’t they?”

The anxiously-sought-after Neville becomes a great source of curiosity, the children clamoring for information and hoping to meet him soon – though they’re pretty impressed with his friend, perhaps even more so than the mysteriously absent Neville.

Returning to his new house, it looks a little less bleak.  Closing his eyes that night, his mother wishes Neville goodnight.

The surprise reveal of Neville’s identity is a clever twist.  The entire book is a poignant look at the void a move can create; what is left behind is no longer accessible, but it’s unclear yet how to access the new resources available.  The tentative way Neville approaches it all is such a realistic depiction – for children and adults alike experiencing a move.  Readers will feel for Neville’s plight (even before we know it’s him), but not just because he’s a nervous kid; because he represents the ambiguity we all face when we experience a move.

We’ve all been tempted to raise our face to the sky and bellow our own name to see what comes back.

In the case of Neville, it’s all good.

First the Egg

My newly minted six year-old, about to enter first grade, chose this book from the bins at the library.


I often wonder at her book selection process, as it seems to be hunt and peck, plucking a book after rifling through just a few.  Maybe something about the cover piques her interest, sometimes it’s one I later find out she’d read with her beloved kindergarten teacher – once, it was because it had the country Swaziland in the title, whose name sent her into peals of laughter the first time she heard it pronounced (no disrespect, Swaziland).  But most times, it seems she chooses a book simply because it seems as good as any other, with a shrug, an impatience with the process.

Whatever her motivation, First the Egg was a great choice.

Starting with a spin on the proverbial question of origin, First the Egg introduces and reinforces many important literacy skills.

Cause and effect, Sequencing, Prediction, Sight words/recognition for emerging/early readers, Parts of a Whole.

Graphically, it is a treat.  Cut-outs on each page hint at what comes next, further reinforcing prediction skills and creating excitement, anticipation for young readers.  Sequencing and staging of processes is reinforced as well, for on every ‘then’ page, there is an illustration in the middle of the phase.  For example, the egg hatching before the chicken appears on its own page.  My favorite, of course, is the Word > Story series.  So exciting to see all that typeface take shape into a story.

And my six year-old isn’t the only one who can read it.  My three year-old, after hearing it a few times from her sister, started “reading” it.  It most likely was memorization and parroting, but I can’t help but feel that she’s starting to put those patterns together.

Ironically, when I took a break from writing this post, my daughter told me that she had, indeed, read this in kindergarten.  So she may not be as brilliant as I thought in picking out this book, but maybe her teacher is!  And at least the lessons stuck with her.  Most importantly, the joy of a good book.

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