This is the story of a tiny marine snail who wants to travel beyond her rock in the harbor. She hitches a ride on the tail of a large humpback whale and embarks on a worldwide adventure. When her whale gets disoriented by the noise of humans' motorboat engines and becomes beached upon the sand, the snail leaves the whale, writes "Save the whale!" in pearl-colored mucus on the chalkboard of a nearby school classroom, and secures necessary human help that allows the whale to survive and the two to return to the sea.
When she and the whale return to the harbor rock and all the other snails hear about her adventures, they, too, climb on-board the whale's tail to see the world. In short, we see it as a storybook that can help teach children numerous lessons in marine ecology.
The visual features of this book are striking. London-based illustrator Axel Scheffler, now the only illustrator to ever win two Giverny Awards, has used pencil, ink, watercolors, colored pencils, and crayons to wonderful effect in filling each 11.2 x 9.8- inch page of the book with enchantingly detailed and inviting pictures that are perfectly in-synch with author Julia Donaldsons' story text. Single and double-page spreads, along with both on-picture and marginal text placement adds visual variety. We liked his use of smaller, call-out drawings from the larger illustrations that help children focus on a subset of the visual data in some of the scenes. Scheffler is particularly good at capturing motion in his artwork. He also does a nice job of showing how far away the horizon is at sea by employing fading ships and distantly shining lighthouses. A myriad of environmental and biological details reward the child's careful observations across multiple readings of this story. Scheffler's color palette and his animal drawings are cheerful, and the book's illustrations evoke a sense of wonder about the sea that we think marine ecoologist Rachel Carson would applaud.
The text of this book is memorable, rhythmic, and fits the illustrations like an elegant velvet glove. Julia Donaldson, based in Glasgow, Scotland, has done the near-impossible--making the whole text rhyme whilst telling the story with both excitement and the necessary brevity this genre of children's literature requires. Children love books that rhyme, but seldom are they written for children of ages four to eight. Seldom do they include accurate science terms and even character dialogue that rhymes. In the story, exciting moments include a raging storm at sea, an encounter with hungry sharks, an erupting volcano, swimming in icy antarctic waters, and the scary predicament of the beached whale. Julia Donaldson knows how to tell an attention-riveting story!
What can this book teach children? There are many science lessons to discover. The effects of tides are part of the story. The sea snail is a mollusk and its locomotion limits its range. In contrast, the humpback whale, a swimming mammal, has an enormous geographic range. Yet the snail's range is vastly expanded by hitching a ride on the shale. The snail has a muscular foot and secretes mucus to aid its locomotion on solid surfaces, albeit slowly. The whale sings a song to communicate with the snail. The snail forms a biological relationship with the whale. The earth is portrayed as full of amazing biodiversity. Humans are portrayed as sometimes disturbing and disorienting wildlife, and sometimes rescuing wildlife--with the latter being much better. Children are shown leading the marine mammal rescue effort--with help from special adults who ordinarily serve the public good. Finally, we learn how important the small snail was to the big whale--that life is interdependent and that small size does not necessarily signal less importance. The story ends at the same harbor rock as it began--there is a happy sense of closure to this book, which children like--"the circle of life!"