The Storm Whale by Benji Davies, published by Simon & Schuster UK
The rain-soaked title page of Benji Davies' wondrous book features the motto of Denys Watkins-Pitchford, a prolific picturebook writer, illustrator and naturalist who wrote under the pseudonym "BB" (he was winner of the 1942 Carnegie Medal for British children's books). It reads:
The wonder of the world
The beauty and the power,
The shapes of things,
Their colours, lights and shades,
These I saw.
Look ye also while life lasts.
These lines, apparently found by his father on a Cumbrian gravestone, appear on title page of BB's book 'The Little Grey Men', a tale of three gnomes in search of a missing friend set against the backdrop of four seasons in the English countryside. On re-reading 'The Storm Whale' for this review (and having already reviewed on this site 'On Sudden Hill' and 'Grandad's Island'), it's fun to speculate on the intended connection made by Benji Davies to BB through the citation of his motto. One certainty is that both BB and BD are able to convey, through their illustrations, the wonder, colour, and beauty of nature.
While 'On Sudden Hill' captures the warm, long summers of childhood, and 'Grandad's Island'' depicts a kaleidoscopic cacophony of sounds and colours from the jungle, 'The Storm Whale' focuses on a salty landscape of raw, wind-swept rocks and the cold beauty of the sea.
Davies' immersive tableaux feel like they've been frozen in time - as if snapshots of scenes otherwise full of movement - whether it's birds diving into the sea, a toy windmill on the beach mid-spin, or a boy mid-stride with both feet off the ground. Each page is packed with details that seem to tell their own stories - the antics of six cats, the fishing net standing on its end in the sand, the small boy who never removes his woollen hat, the tea and chocolate chip biscuits neatly set out on a tray.
The words are minimalist yet rich: "Noi lived with his dad and six cats by the sea" reads the opening line, and we see Noi examining an arrangement of leaves, shells, stones and a stick while his dad looks out across their seafront garden from their ramshackle house. We hear how Noi's dad leaves early every day for work on his fishing boat. We and Noi watch his dad leave and are told "He wouldn't be home again till dark". When Noi discovers a little whale washed up on his shore, he helps him back to his house and makes him feel at home - playing him an LP of Handel's 'Water Music', bathing him in their tub, and telling him stories about the island.
We then see his dad approaching the house, his yellow mac shining out in the dark of the night, and Noi's worried eyes appearing in the window. Although he manages to keep his secret at first, his dad discovers the whale before long. His dad isn't angry though, and we see a tender moment as the dad comforts his son, noticing a loneliness in Noi that he'd been too busy to see, and explains they have to take the whale back to the water. A wonderful double page spread follows, of Noi and his dad out at sea, in matching yellow macs in their tiny boat, as the whale disappears below the dark waves.
Happily, this shared experience seems to trigger a renewed bond between Noi and his dad, and the final scenes depict them together, first in the kitchen with Noi painting a picture of the whale as his dad prepares food, and then hand in hand as they climb up to the clifftop for a picnic just in time to see the little whale splashing in the sea with its parent, while two seagulls tussle over a jam sandwich.