[Book Review] If You Want to See a Whale by Julie Fogliano


If you want to see a whale, you will need to know what not to look at.

Pink roses, pelicans, possible pirates...

If you want to see a whale, you have to keep your eyes on the sea, and wait... and wait... and wait...

In this quiet and beautiful picture book by Julie Fogliano and Erin E. Stead, the team that created the Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor book And Then It's Spring, a boy learns exactly what it takes to catch a glimpse of an elusive whale.

Unfortunately, If You Want to See a Whale simply did not work for me, and I wasn't quite sure why until I took a look the various reasons other readers enjoyed it. After checking out some of the positive reviews on Goodreads, I think I've pinned down what I didn't enjoy about it. Here it goes.

As many of the positive reviews mention, the emotional state of the book is calming, almost meditative. It preaches patience and observation (but more on that later), and I guess that's not really what I'm looking for in a picture book. Perhaps if I'd been in the mood for something so peaceful when I sat down to read it, I would have enjoyed it more. As it is, I read it during a binge of picture books--Goodreads Choice Awards 2013 nominees, to be specific--and many of them struck me with their creativity, hilarity, and wonderful art. And then there was If You Want to See a Whale with its simplicity and its pastels and its almost philosophical nature... and it just doesn't mesh with my mindset. Maybe someday I can reread it at a point in my life--or even just a mood--when I'll be more open to the message it's trying to get across.

That message, however, is what truly bugged me about the book, I think. I couldn't quite put my finger on what the message was exactly, and after reading those other reviews, it's obvious other people suffered similarly. Readers seem to have taken it one of two distinct and opposite ways. Some people embrace the text literally. It's a book about focusing on finding that whale, the rest of life's intrigue be damned. Ignore the roses, ignore the clouds, ignore the other ships you pass. You want to get that whale, and those other things just aren't whales. In a straightforward interpretation of that message, Fogliano would be going for patience, perseverance, and above all else, focus. That message does not work for me. Not at all.

So then there's the other way of interpreting it. Some people think the book's being ironic in a "tell a child to do something, and s/he'll want to do the opposite" kind of way. By urging one to ignore everything on their quest for the whale, the book makes its reader think about how, no, you most certainly shouldn't adopt obsessive, oblivious tunnel-vision when working toward a goal. I much prefer that message, but I'm not quite convinced that's what Fogliano's going for. And it's the uncertainty that kills it for me. I like ambiguity in an ending. I like being able to interpret characters and scenes and motivation and all the various aspects of a text, but I don't like the entirety of the text to be open to interpretation. That doesn't work for me, though I'm sure there are plenty of other readers who absolutely love that. It's pretty cool to write something that subjective, after all. It's just not quite what I'm looking for in a book.

So, all that said, there are plenty of people who will most definitely adore If You Want to See a Whale. If you think you're one of them after reading this, give it a go. If, however, you suspect you'd end up feeling like I did after you're done... I'd say go ahead and give this one a pass.

Or, hell, go ahead. It's a picture book. Give it five minutes of your time, just to see. What have you got to lose?

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