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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Whale Watching


When last we discussed IF YOU WANT TO SEE A WHALE, Leonard brought up a good question: Should we consider this text as a picture book or a single poem?  Ultimately, I’m not sure that it really matters how we classify it, but it’s definitely helpful to look at it through both lenses.  I have no way of proving this, and it doesn’t really matter, but I think Fogliano wrote this as a single poem with eight verses, each one starting with ‘if you want  to see a whale  . . .” and when Stead illustrated the text the first, fourth, and eighth verses were stretched out over multiple spreads–which gives it a nice ebb and flow, no matter how you read it.

We discussed consonance, alliteration, and sibilance in Sidman’s poem, “Blessing on the Curl of Cat.”  Can you spot those qualities here?

if you want to see a whale

you shouldn’t watch the clouds

some floating by, some hanging down

in the sky that’s spread out, side to side

or the certain sun that’s shining

because if you start to look straight up

you might just miss a whale 

Fogliano includes a fair amount of repetition–most of the lines start with one of four words (if, you, and, because)–and there is also a curious lack of capitalization and punctuation with line breaks standing in for the use of a comma to separate prepositional and coordinating phrases.  There is a gentle narrative arc here: the beginning and the end are very clear, but the middle of the book meanders a bit more than your traditional picture book.  With the brevity of the text, we expect the language to really soar, and it does.  The total effect is that the rhythm and cadence of the words help create a wonderfully wistful paean to patience, observation, imagination, and living in the moment.

While I think there are several other exceptional picture book texts, LOCOMOTIVE is the other one that’s gotten extensive play here on the blog, and it, too, is kind of written in free verse.  I’ve read LOCOMOTIVE several times now, and–using an unofficial litmus test for Newberyish picture books, here–none of the lines really stick in my memory the way that IF YOU WANT TO SEE A WHALE does, or SHOW WAY, or DOCTOR DeSOTO–and the events of the plot are hard to recall.  For me, LOCOMOTIVE doesn’t really shine as poetry, nor is it completely satisfying as a narrative or as an exposition.  Your mileage may vary, but as either a picture book text or a single poem, I find IF YOU WANT TO SEE A WHALE superior.

Now as for WHAT THE HEART KNOWS, it’s hard to compare an entire collection with a single poem–it had better be one heck of a poem.  I do find this single poem to be as good as the best ones in Sidman’s collection, which are for a slightly older audience, but I don’t think I’d pick it as a better work of poetry.  Fortunately, though, IF YOU WANT TO SEE A WHALE isn’t just a poem, it’s a picture book text and an . . .


The book works splendidly as a class read aloud and as a lap book for a single child, but how does it work as an independent read for the newly emergent reader?  While the font is rather small and the narrative is not straightforward, everything else about the book works in its favor: pictorial clues for the text, repetition of words and phrases from a controlled vocabulary of several dozen words, a relatively short number of words per line and lines per page, and a prevalence of monosyllabic words with many of the polysyllabic words ending with “ing.”  I don’t necessarily expect this book to wrest the Geisel Medal away from PENNY AND HER MARBLE, but I wouldn’t be surprised by some recognition by that committee.

IF YOU WANT TO SEE A WHALE doesn’t crack my top three, but in the event that the committee doesn’t like my top three, then I can easily get behind this one.  What about you?


Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at


  1. Leonard Kim says:

    I would love this to win something, but I also see the potential flaw you’ve identified (same as AND THEN IT’S SPRING), that “the middle of the book meanders a bit.” I think one could excise two or so stanzas (e.g., the one about nibble scooters and the one about clouds) and the book as a whole wouldn’t be any worse and arguably would be tighter. (I’ve felt this when reading aloud to my daughter — her attention strays just as the book exhorts her not to). However, those stanzas are lovely in and of themselves so how one feels about this probably does come down to taste.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      I’m not sure the middle makes it weak as either a poem or a picture book. Sure, some picture books have a tighter plot in the middle, but not all of them. Ditto for novels. Now, I do think it makes it more problematic for the Geisel committee.

  2. I don’t know about the picture book vs. poetry debate, but I am head over heels for this book. It is a lovely picture book, and is true to the form as the illustrations do a hefty amount of storytelling. The whale in the clouds, the whale just below the surface…those aren’t in Julie’s words, but when paired with Erin’s visuals it adds another layer of meaning.

    Might not be in my top three either, but it’s one I am thrilled to have in the canon.

  3. Mary Kraus says:

    What a delightful book! I loved the message of not losing sight of the small pleasures in life at the expense of focusing on finding the big thing! I honestly thought I wouldn’t see the whale at the end and the “moral” would be to look beneath the surface of life… alas… the whale IS beneath the surface… if we don’t lose sight of the small pleasures in life they will ultimately merge into the big pleasures… or am I reaching?

  4. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    Since we almost certainly won’t have time to squeeze another picture book post in, I’m just going to dump comments here.

    BATTLE BUNNY: This was funny. Obviously, it’s Geisel chances may be better than its Newbery chances, but like IF YOU WANT TO SEE A WHALE even those may be in jeopardy because its for a sophisticated early reader.

    LITTLE SANTA: I like the folkloric quality of this one, but it’s probably too understated to make a dent in the final nomination lists.

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