Walk of the Whales by Nick Bland
Inside the CBCA Shortlist
Book Review by Joy in Books at PaperbarkWords blog
Nick Bland is very well known and loved for his picture books, The Very Cranky Bear and sequels, The Wrong Book, The Runaway Hug (text by Freya Blackwood), King Pig, The Fabulous Friend Machine and others.
His book Walk of the Whales (published Hardie Grant) is shortlisted in the 2022 CBCA Book of the Year: Early Childhood award.
Beginning with the comical walking-on-tails of six whales on the title pages, followed by the expansive establishing shot of two massive whales tottering up the stairs from the beach, Walk of the Whales shows Nick Bland in top form.
When the whales walked out of the ocean
and into the cities and towns,
they were greeted with smiles from the children …
from others they only got frowns. (Walk of the Whales)
The whales walk further into places populated by humans.
As in many cases where the unexpected is encountered, particularly when it affects someone’s personal experience or livelihood, people may react with delight or suspicion.
Although the fish sellers are pleased, and the newspapers are happy to sell out with whale stories, the lighthouse keepers feel threatened, the swimmers in the pool are crowded, restaurateurs can’t order fish because the whales have eaten them all and the farmers flood the countryside to grow plankton causing the bakers and shopkeepers to go out of business.
People grow tired of the detritus left from the “killer whales’” fish meals littering the streets and statues and start protesting against the whales.
It may be the children who are most wise.
Finally, a girl called Frida asks a whale why they have left the ocean.
The whale replies, with a tear,
The ocean is full of rubbish, you see.
It’s become like a gigantic bin!
As soon as someone cleans it up,
we’ll all go right back in.
And the whales do go right back in once the people clean out their rubbish.
Nick Bland’s picture books are generally humorous and he often uses comedy to tell people what they may not otherwise want to hear. This makes his message much more palatable and also enables a multi-level read where, here, very young children can take the story about funny whales at face-value. They may also join more mature readers in perceiving Walk of the Whales as a fable about how people pollute the oceans. It is also about suspicion and intolerance of the newcomer (or someone who is different) and reminds people to ‘ask’, rather than complaining and reacting negatively.
The allusion to (physical) disability through the character in the wheelchair and the variety of skin colours to show diversity also brings us back to the title Walk of the Whales, which, as well as being an apt and funny title, is a reminder to “walk in someone else’s’ shoes” – have empathy!
Nick Bland often uses rhyme in his picture books. It adds to the appeal and requires a great deal of care to be successful. It also contributes to the fun.
As always, Nick’s illustrations generate much of the humour. Here it is primarily because of size – the incongruity of the enormous whales doing things on land that people usually do, such as the ludicrous scene where the big whales ride tiny bicycles.
Such big creatures could be seen as intimidating but Nick Bland gives them rounded shapes to depict them as benign and unthreatening. These shapes are echoed in the rounded lighthouse, arched doorways and bicycle wheels.
I interviewed Nick for Magpies magazine in 2019 and below is an extract from the interview that is relevant to Walk of the Whales:
Joy: Animal characters – Why have you used so many animal characters rather than humans throughout your body of work?
Nick: I know it’s not always obvious but every one of my stories stems from a political viewpoint about prejudice, fairness and greed. It’s easier to use animals of course, so race or gender need not be defined directly. King Pig, in my mind, was about indigenous dispossession but the colour and race of the tyrant and the nature of the dispossessed is different throughout the world so it’s easier to use universally recognised symbols like pigs (as selfish overlords) and sheep (as citizens). You only have 30 pages to make clear points so symbols help kids read the pictures easily. And, honestly, when I have something to say about touchy subjects, I want to leave it up to the parent/teacher/grandparent to decide whether or not to broach the subjects within, or just take the story on face value if they’d prefer. I always make entertainment the primary driver of the story. The dissemination of deeper themes is up to the adult.
I have recently finished a bear book that has a yellow bulldozer as an antagonist but I was careful not to make a human being visible driving it because I worried about alienating the kid whose parent might drive a bulldozer for a living. Personally, I’d rather save a forest than the jobs of bulldozer driver’s but a great deal of the population has legitimate reasons to disagree with me. So I write a funny story about a bear and a bulldozer and leave the rest up to the reader.
I consider my job, boiled down, is to facilitate an interaction between an adult and a child. I write the story and give it pictorial accompaniments but the reader takes over from there – the warm embrace of a loved one or the shared chaos of story time. I make that happen if I do my job well. I don’t like reading my own stories out loud. I simply don’t do them justice.
Joy: Without detracting from the fun element, how do you use humour to get a message across?
Nick: I think the key is in the retention and repetition of the story. The best way to get a child to retain a story is to put it in rhyme. And once they know it, they want to hear it again and again. When the message is kindness, that’s a great thing.