When last we discussed IF YOU WANT TO SEE A WHALE, Leonard brought up a good question: Should we consider this text as a picture book or a single poem? Ultimately, I’m not sure that it really matters how we classify it, but it’s definitely helpful to look at it through both lenses. I have no way of proving this, and it doesn’t really matter, but I think Fogliano wrote this as a single poem with eight verses, each one starting with ‘if you want to see a whale . . .” and when Stead illustrated the text the first, fourth, and eighth verses were stretched out over multiple spreads–which gives it a nice ebb and flow, no matter how you read it.
We discussed consonance, alliteration, and sibilance in Sidman’s poem, “Blessing on the Curl of Cat.” Can you spot those qualities here?
if you want to see a whale
you shouldn’t watch the clouds
some floating by, some hanging down
in the sky that’s spread out, side to side
or the certain sun that’s shining
because if you start to look straight up
you might just miss a whale
Fogliano includes a fair amount of repetition–most of the lines start with one of four words (if, you, and, because)–and there is also a curious lack of capitalization and punctuation with line breaks standing in for the use of a comma to separate prepositional and coordinating phrases. There is a gentle narrative arc here: the beginning and the end are very clear, but the middle of the book meanders a bit more than your traditional picture book. With the brevity of the text, we expect the language to really soar, and it does. The total effect is that the rhythm and cadence of the words help create a wonderfully wistful paean to patience, observation, imagination, and living in the moment.
While I think there are several other exceptional picture book texts, LOCOMOTIVE is the other one that’s gotten extensive play here on the blog, and it, too, is kind of written in free verse. I’ve read LOCOMOTIVE several times now, and–using an unofficial litmus test for Newberyish picture books, here–none of the lines really stick in my memory the way that IF YOU WANT TO SEE A WHALE does, or SHOW WAY, or DOCTOR DeSOTO–and the events of the plot are hard to recall. For me, LOCOMOTIVE doesn’t really shine as poetry, nor is it completely satisfying as a narrative or as an exposition. Your mileage may vary, but as either a picture book text or a single poem, I find IF YOU WANT TO SEE A WHALE superior.
Now as for WHAT THE HEART KNOWS, it’s hard to compare an entire collection with a single poem–it had better be one heck of a poem. I do find this single poem to be as good as the best ones in Sidman’s collection, which are for a slightly older audience, but I don’t think I’d pick it as a better work of poetry. Fortunately, though, IF YOU WANT TO SEE A WHALE isn’t just a poem, it’s a picture book text and an . . .
The book works splendidly as a class read aloud and as a lap book for a single child, but how does it work as an independent read for the newly emergent reader? While the font is rather small and the narrative is not straightforward, everything else about the book works in its favor: pictorial clues for the text, repetition of words and phrases from a controlled vocabulary of several dozen words, a relatively short number of words per line and lines per page, and a prevalence of monosyllabic words with many of the polysyllabic words ending with “ing.” I don’t necessarily expect this book to wrest the Geisel Medal away from PENNY AND HER MARBLE, but I wouldn’t be surprised by some recognition by that committee.
IF YOU WANT TO SEE A WHALE doesn’t crack my top three, but in the event that the committee doesn’t like my top three, then I can easily get behind this one. What about you?
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About Jonathan Hunt
Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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