Friday, May 15, 2015

Caught in the Spell of Words and Paintings

The partnership of author Robert Burleigh and artist Wendell Minor has once again produced a powerful nonfiction picture book. When reading Trapped!: A Whale’s Rescue, I think it’s best to just enjoy it, letting the words and paintings surprise you, capture your attention, and stir your emotions. I read the book three times for enjoyment before I allowed my “critical reviewer’s lens” to creep in.

So, why did I enjoy it? Here are a few reasons:
·      The Show-Stopping Cover: The front cover shows a whale almost completely submerged under water and a diver—so small by comparison—shining his flashlight on the netting that has trapped this whale. The back cover extends this illustration, showing another diver pulling off some of the netting, while observers in a rescue boat nearby look on. This cover hooked me immediately and raised questions: How did the whale become trapped? Will the divers save it?
·      The Language: From the beginning, the language celebrates this magnificent animal, appealing to my sense of sight and sound. Here’s a sample:
                        The huge humpback whale dips and dives.
                        Her sleek black sides shimmering,
                        she spyhops, lobtails, flashes her flukes.
            Even though I later had to look up both spyhop and lobtail, I was hooked.
·      The Plot Thickens: Danger comes in the shape of nets left by crab fisherman. The whale is trapped and we see the word TRAPPED in large white capital letters. In fact, when the text deals with the life-threatening struggle to free the whale, the print switches from black to icy white. This only added to the tension I felt.
·      Relief and Safety: Rescuers arrive and they manage to cut the netting and free the whale. And, as a perfect ending, the whale nudges divers as if giving them thanks before heading off. What a relief. The book moved in a satisfying progression: from joyful celebration of the whale, to danger, to rescue, and back to joyful celebration. I felt this relief.
·      Back Matter: For fans of extending a story, the back matter provides more information about this true story, more information about rescuing whales, and more sources of information. To read an article about this event in the San Francisco Chronicle, go to

I honestly don’t like the idea of analyzing why I like this book so much. I just do. When a book grabs me so strongly, that’s more than enough for me. I think that in addition to showing children how nonfiction works, we should also take time to celebrate its power to nourish our hearts and minds.  Let’s ask our students which books grab them. 

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