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[Saturday Reads] At Home in the Water: Four Picturebooks About Finding Refuge in the Seas and Non-traditional Families


Myra here.

Every Saturday we hope to share with you our thoughts on reading and books. We thought that it would be good practice to reflect on our reading lives and our thoughts about reading in general. While on occasion, we would feature a few books in keeping with this, there would be a few posts where we will just write about our thoughts on read-alouds, libraries, reading journals, upcoming literary conferences, books that we are excited about, and just book love miscellany in general.


While these four picturebooks seemingly tackle quite a diverse set of issues, there is one thread that binds them all together: water.

IMG_2330A Symphony Of Whales

Written by: Steve Schuch Illustrated by: Peter Sylvada
Published byVoyager Books, 1999
Borrowed from the public library. Book photos taken by me.

This tale is inpired by a true story that happened in the winter of 1984-85 when “nearly three thousand beluga whales were found trapped in the Senyavina Strait of Siberia, a narrow body of water across the Bering Strait from Alaska.”


In this fictional version of the story, a young girl named Glashka is able to hear the song of the whale, called by the old ones of the village as “… the voice of Narna, the whale. Long has she been a friend to our people.” This girl’s gift allowed her to hear the whales’ plaintive cries, prompting her to mobilize the entire community to provide sustenance and help to these beautiful creatures until help finally came in the form of Russian icebreakers.


This beautifully illustrated book shows how all creatures are bound together in compassion expressed through music if one has sensibilities that are attuned to the calls of nature as filtered by the roaring wind. While the images did not resonate as much with me, do take note that this book is named one of the best ilustrated children’s books by the New York Times Book Review. I suppose the book design and layout with dense text on one page and imagery found on the other made me feel that this is more of an illustrated book rather than an actual picturebook.

The Storm WhaleIMG_2323

Written and Illustrated by: Benji Davies
Published by: Simon & Schuster, 2013
Borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.

While there are quite a few picturebooks that deal with mother and child relationships or even single parenting (see Jacqueline Woodson’s Coming on Home Soon or Knock Knock by Daniel Beaty and Bryan Collier), there are only several that I can think of that deal with father-and-child relationships – without the mother present. The Visitors Who Came to Stay by Annalena McAfee illustrated by Anthony Browne, while tackling father-and-daughter relationship, also talks about blended families.


In The Storm Whale, Noi and his fisherman father lived by the sea with their six cats. Do not be fooled by the seemingly-generic and minimalist art – it is quite a feat how Benji Davies is able to pack such an emotional punch with only dots for eyes, yet he accomplishes this with quiet force.


The image above is an example of how Davies infuses little details that speak volumes of father-and-son routine and the tiny things that make up a life. The absence of the mother was never alluded to in the text but is keenly sensed and felt in the images. When Noi found a whale washed on the shore, he did what any lonely boy would do, he took it home, placed it in the tub, and told the whale stories about what life is like on the island.


While Noi did attempt to hide this tiny fact from his father who comes home exhausted in the evenings, it is clear that something as huge as this will eventually be discovered and Noi has to let his friend go:


It was this full-spread image that made me catch my breath in all its vastness and the lonely blues of goodbye. This is a quiet book that will stay with any reader: both adult and child.

IMG_2469A Thirst For Home: A Story Of Water Across The World

Written by: Christine Ieronimo Illustrated by: Eric Velasquez
Published by: Walker Books for Young Readers, 2014
Borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.

When I saw this picturebook, I thought that it was an informational text about water and how it is consumed/used perhaps throughout the world. I was so wrong. This is Alemitu’s story who used to live in a small Ethiopian village with her mother – the father does not figure anywhere in this story as well.


Life was hard in this Ethiopian village where water is hard to come by and Alemitu often had a roaring lion in her belly. Alemitu was eventually put up for adoption by her mother who gave her a scarf with both their collected tears, a testament to the pain but necessity of their separation:


Alemitu seemed to have integrated quite well with her American family who made her feel safe and loved. The roaring lion in her belly has quieted down and very seldom, if at all, appears. However, she is often reminded of her mother who told her stories of the watering hole; and she realized that there is a way through which she can still hold on to the memory of her mother and where she comes from through water that binds us all, no matter which side of the world we live in:


This is a feel-good adoption story of a young girl whose disadvantaged background has been made better by being with an adoptive family who lives in the United States. It would be good to pair this with other picturebooks on not just adoptive families, but also picturebooks about immigrants and how it is like to navigate around an unfamiliar environment with a different language and cultural practices – to signify the many issues that children also encounter under similar circumstances (see Azzi in Between or The Silent Seeker).

In A Village By The SeaIMG_2462

Written by: Muon Van Illustrated by: April Chu
Published by: Creston Books 2015
Borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.

I learned about this picturebook through Betsy Bird’s very detailed Goodreads Review. And I knew I just have to find this. Do not be fooled by the seemingly placid book cover as the art found in each page is simply awe-inspiring (see image below).


The Author’s Note indicates that the story “was inspired by my father and An Bang, my ancestral village in Central Vietnam.” Muon Van’s father used to be a fisherman in their hometown, a job which he took with him even after they moved to the United States during the Vietnamese American War. They lived in Galveston, Texas and Honolulu, Hawaii both cities by the sea where Muon Van’s father continued working as a fisherman and a shrimper.


Each full-page spread has three lines packed with such poignant force – all the more powerful because it is so distilled, as this story-within-a-story unfurls like a message found in a parchment paper waiting to be read. The play in perspective as the text zooms in closer and closer into the heart of the narrative is mirrored by the outstanding imagery that provides almost a cinematic-zooming-in that is done with such craftsmanship by April Chu. The illustrator’s bio found at the end of the book explains her success in executing this fine piece of artwork as she began her career as an architect – so the reader is able to appreciate not just the fine lines, but also the distance and perspective, and the multiple ways of seeing.



As one gets an aerial view (see image above), one can see the dusty hole that signifies another layer to this story:


There is the brown cricket that hums and paints a boat that is lost in a storm – the same boat that has the fisherman-father in this story, as mother and child patiently wait for him and prepare a hot meal that would be ready for him when he comes home. Whether or not the father did make it home, I shall leave for you to discover. I anticipate this picturebook receiving multiple awards next year.


A Symphony of Whales: Best Illustrated Children’s Books – The New York Times Book Review

The Storm Whale has been shortlisted for the Booktrust 2014 Best Books Award; 2013 Oscar’s First Book Prize

#AWBRead2015 Update: 73-74 (35)

5 comments on “[Saturday Reads] At Home in the Water: Four Picturebooks About Finding Refuge in the Seas and Non-traditional Families

  1. Fats Suela

    The Storm Whale is also the winner of the 2013 Oscar’s First Book Prize.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for sharing A Thirst For Home. It is a Notable Social Studies book for 2015 recognized by the CBC. Thanks again!


  3. Wow! All of the illustrations in the books you show are amazing! Maybe water inspires great art! 🙂


  4. Pingback: [Monday Reading] First Person Narrative Picturebooks Portraying Kindness, Compassion, and Empathy – Gathering Books

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