The Storm Whale: A Tender Illustrated Story of Loneliness, Loss, Single-Parenting, and the Redemptive Power of Love
By Maria Popova
London-based illustrator and animation director Benji Davies reconciles these two contradictory demands with enormous tenderness and thoughtfulness in The Storm Whale (public library) — a beautiful belated addition to the best children’s books of 2014. A quiet meditation on what happens when solitude becomes loneliness, the story welcomes the challenges and rewards of single-parenting, celebrating the redemptive power of attentive love.
Noi is a little boy who lives by the sea with his fisherman-father and their six cats. Like in the touching Davey McGravy and My Father’s Arms Are a Boat — two of the most unusual and wonderful books that help children grieve — there is no mother in the picture. With great subtlety, Davies invites the reader to sense the presence of loss in the salty air of this small and sensitive child’s life.
Every day at dawn, Noi’s father departs for a long day of work on his fishing boat and doesn’t come home until dark.
One morning, after a violent storm sweeps the island, Noi goes down to the beach and spots something curious in the distance.
As he got closer, Noi could not believe his eyes. It was a little whale washed up on the sand.
Knowing that the whale can’t live out of the water but unsure how he can help, Noi decides to cart the stranded creature to his house and make it feel at home — in the bathtub.
He told stories about life on the island. The whale was an excellent listener.
But Noi knows the secret companionship won’t last long and fears that his dad, upon coming home, would be furious about the whale in the bathroom.
The little boy manages tho keep the secret all through the evening, even sneaking a few fish from the dinner table to the tub, but the father eventually discovers his son’s betubbed friend — a moment dramatic not for its volatility but for the quiet wistfulness to which it awakens the fisherman.
Noi’s dad wasn’t angry.
He had been so busy, he hadn’t noticed that Noi was lonely.
But he said they must take the whale back to the sea, where it belonged.
Despite knowing it was the right thing to do, Noi has a hard time saying goodbye but is glad to have his loving father there.
As the two return to their daily lives, the little boy keeps thinking about his whale-friend, hoping to see him again.
In the final scene, Noi and his father head to a picnic atop the cliff and the little boy’s wish comes true — he spots the baby animal alongside a grown whale in the ocean, waving a friendly tail. But the joyful moment is underpinned by subtle solemnity — one can’t help the pensive awareness that the little boy watching the two tails on the horizon, the larger most likely the whale-mother’s, is about to return to his own motherless home.
The ending motif calls to mind two of the best children’s books of our century, Marianne Dubuc’s The Lion and the Bird and Marla Frazee’s The Farmer and the Clown: a bittersweet separation — bitter, for the protagonist says farewell to his unlikely new friend; sweet, for each world is restored to its natural order — followed by a redemptive partial reunion, allowing the two worlds that had intersected for a blink to continue moving along their autonomous orbits while bowing to each other’s gladdening gravity.
Complement the infinitely warm and wonderful The Storm Whale with a vintage counterpart — the 1949 treasure Little Boy Brown, perhaps the greatest ode to loneliness ever written. For a different kind of homage to single-parenting, see Jacqueline Woodson’s lovely Pecan Pie Baby, illustrated by Sophie Blackall.
Published April 17, 2015