by Sam Juliano
The team that dazzled picture book aficionados with last year’s Edward Hopper Paints His World, and a series of other non-fiction titles over the years have again collaborated on a splendid work based on an actual event. Robert Burleigh and Wendell Minor’s engaging documentation results in a breathtaking rescue story that yields the same kind of crowd-pleasing denouement that made Jerry Pinkney’s Caldecott Medal winner The Lion and the Mouse so unforgettable. Burleigh’s narrative follows the food-seeking journey of the largest mammal on the earth from the icy waters of the arctic to coastal California, where the hump back whale is after a massive volume of krill. Burleigh’s exclamatory descriptive language (i.e. “She spanks the cold blue with her powerful tail, Bang!; Down in the depths, her call echoes.”) is perfectly wed with Minor’s magnificent aquamarine gouache paintings.
The event, as described in a “Behind the Story” afterward occurred on December 11, 2005, when fisherman detected a hump back whale struggling to free itself from rope entanglement near the coast of San Francisco. Quick notification was sent on to whale specialists and rescue divers, who then performed aquatic miracles in averting a tragedy, but for the endangered mammal and the would-be human saviors it was a tenuous and harrowing episode that from the start posed an enormous risk. The crisis is laid out in compelling terms by Burleigh:
The whale feels the tickle of thin threads/She plunges on./She tosses. She spirals sideways as spidery lines tighten around her./The struggle begins./The web of ropes cuts into her skin. She flails, starts to sink, fights for sir.
It is subsequently clear enough after the remarkable creature struggles frantically that exhaustion could ultimately doom an escape without outside intervention. That vital assistance is engineered in speedy fashion with Herculean ardor by careful divers, who as Burleigh notes can easily enough be crushed by the mammal’s rollover, or pummeled by one deadly flap of the powerful tail. A whale in desperation compounds the danger and lessens the options. Burleigh establishes a human connection to the imprisoned mammal, with one diver patting the whale’s rump and looking into its eye, prior to the cutting of the ropes, and later when the emancipated whale softly nudges each diver in the group in a show of appreciation. Indeed in a “Did You Know?” section on the final pages it is asserted that whales are athletic and playful in addition to some other remarkable propensities.
The real treat in Trapped! A Whale’s Rescue are the oceanic tapestries by Minor that combine the visceral aspects of whale movement in the open sea with wholly sublime compositions that fully convey the breathtaking beauty of the sea, what with its blue-green splendor and the mysterious beauty of the deeper waters. As always, Minor strives to bring authenticity to natural environments, but never at the expense of his ravishing employment of color, in detailing all the possibilities of the open waters traversed by the larger than life protagonist, living on the world’s biggest stage. Several set pieces are extraordinary. The first is the opening illustration depicting the whale leaping out of the water, and the water splashes made by creative use of the brush in abstract mode, always a Minor specialty. Such depth of color and texture from only black, white and turquoise. Doves in flight give the double page spread added movement. Another aquatic gem depicts “towering waves cascading down the whale’s leathery back” and the white on black waves appear in geyser-like intensity. The close-in view of the whale’s initiation into captivity is striking, framed in the greenish waters; the ferocious thrusts of the humpback’s tail is drenched in bubbly white that you expect to feel when you caress the pages with your fingers. Each of the rescue panels convey the urgency of the situation, the danger of such a rescue attempt, and the multi-stage nature of the operation. Minor’s stark tapestries are designed with precision-like grace, and are always a veritable feast for the eyes. The final two spreads -one showing the whale rising out of the water in gratitude, with the divers in the water and on the rescue boat holding their arms up in triumph completing a celebratory painting with its sunny color mixes – and the other in front of the moon and a starry sky help to sustain the aura of mystery surrounding this most cognizant of all the endangered species and the vast ocean habitat that on occasion because of man’s interference and various maneuverings that can call into question the whale’s status as ruler of the seas.
Because the story shows human nature at its most magnanimous, and because the story’s arc ends without any price to pay, it is one that inspires and pierces the heart. Minor, who last year was arguably the year’s ace picture book illustrator with a hat trick that included the aforementioned Edward Hopper and two collaborations with the late Jean Craighead George and Tony Johnston (Galapagos George and Sequoia respectively) is one of the most prolific and talented artists working today, and each new outing gives his fans another opportunity for aesthetic adoration. Armed with some wonderful prose from Burleigh he’s brought an epic scope to Trapped! A Whale’s Rescue that should make the book a big winner on all grade levels.
Note: ‘Trapped! A Whale’s Rescue’ appears on shelves and at the various on line sites today, Tuesday, April 14th.