This wordless picture book tells the emotional story of a fisherman and his son who find a whale caught in fishing nets and set it free.
In the Author’s Note at the end, Jessica Lanan asks that the book be read as a fable. It is not, she emphasises, a literal guide to whale rescue (which is the business of professional wildlife rescue authorities).
The story is focused on a fisherman and his son who, in the initial images, are seen gathering in a catch onboard their fishing vessel.
Below them, though, a distressing story is playing out. In the deep waters underneath their boat we see a whale becoming increasingly enmeshed in the discarded fishing nets and lines that litter the ocean, until finally it can no longer open its mouth.
The author’s purpose is to draw attention to the environmental impact of commercial fishing practices. She wishes to shed light on the harm we do to the environment and to encourage our empathy towards other living creatures, with the ultimate aim of changing damaging behaviours and practices.
The young boy spots the whale’s distress and alerts his father to its plight, encouraging him to investigate.
Initially the fisherman is more concerned about getting home on time, as indicated by him pointing to his watch. However, with a little persuasion, he eventually agrees to follow his son’s plan.
Before long the boat has drawn alongside the whale and the two species, human and whale, find themselves looking directly at each other, eye to eye.
The emotional connection between these vastly different creatures is emphasised in a spread that shows close-ups of their eyes, one on the left and the other on the right. The first belongs to the fisherman, with the whale reflected deep in his iris. The second belongs to the whale, with the boy and his father reflected within.
Subsequent images show the fisherman diving into the water and battling to cut the whale free of the dangerous tangle of nets and lines that encircle it.
In the spread below (rotated at right angles), the man is depicted several times within one picture, and this suggests a succession of separate moments closely linked in time, a technique sometimes described as ‘simultaneous succession’ or ‘continuous narrative’.
Not long after, the boy throws his father a lifebuoy and draws him back into the boat. Once back on board, the fisherman gives his son a big celebratory hug. Together they have released the whale – who makes one final appearance to ‘thank’ them.
Jessica Lanan is the illustrator of several books for children, including Out of School and Into Nature: The Anna Comstock Story and The Story I’ll Tell.
This title is the first Lanan has both written and illustrated. Her pictures, rendered in watercolour and gouache, use contrast cleverly to distinguish the two elements of the story: the realistic and the imagined. The fisherman, his son and their boat are shown in a straightforward representational style, while the whale and the ocean are depicted in a much more atmospheric, dynamic way. This helps to emphasises the poetic, fable-like nature of the book.
The Fisherman & the Whale won the 2020 Bull-Bransom Award for Wildlife Art.