Reviews /

The Night Whale

Authored by Bryher Mackenzie
Illustrated by Gillian Eilidh O’Mara
Published by Walker Books Ltd

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Sometimes when someone dies, it’s best to be absolutely straight down the line with it – death is death and it comes to us all. Sometimes it seems right to be more circumspect – Nana in The Night Whale leaves her granddaughter behind and goes to ride a magical whale in the sky. You might be comfortable with that or you might not, and that will be the main factor in your reaction to this book and will govern whether it’s a story that you want to share with children or not.

The death of a loved one is something that pretty much all of us will face at some time in our lives and there is no shortage of books that look at bereavement. Badgers Parting Gifts by Susan Varley is much loved as is The Hare Shaped Hole by John Dougherty with Thomas Docherty. Can this book, by Bryher Mackenzie, illustrated by Gillian Eildh O’Mara, offer something new?

The story of The Night Whale sees a child out on the shoreline at night, stargazing with her grandmother. The skies are beautiful colours that would be lovely to try and copy with paints. The two are happy together as they have been many times before. Nana is a wonderful character, the granny that you wish you’d had:

Nana wafts our blanket towards the sky, swatting stars way up high. Our hill, where Nana speaks of astronomy often and holds lessons fuelled by hot chocolate, biscuits and tales from many moons ago.’

Things take a magical turn when the Night Whale comes, swimming amongst the constellations in the sky. It seems that Nana knows this creature of old and can speak to it in its own language. The child and her grandmother climb aboard the Night Whale and ride around the world, past cities and glaciers, amongst the Northern Lights. The child sees the stars as shiny, foil wrapped sweets and can pluck them from the sky.

At the end of the book, we realise that maybe Nana isn’t ‘really’ there in quite the way we thought she was:

I take a deep breath in as I hold on to the feeling of her favourite jumper against my cheek. The smell of hot chocolate and sea air that surrounds her.

The sound of her voice that rises and falls with the tide.

All these Nana things wash over me. I close my eyes and she is there.

This is all rather beautifully done. The images have a luminous softness that is deeply comforting. The words are almost a lullaby. I can see this book being something to return to for a child who has lost a grandparent or other loved one.

Nana is more than the archetypical fairytale granny, she has her passion for astronomy about which she is clearly knowledgeable – she has a ‘proper’ astronomical telescope to view the stars. In the end papers we see her riding a motorbike and we see that bike again in the constellations of stars that the pair ride through upon their whale, constellations that depict their points of connection, the bike, a violin, cups of hot chocolate, binoculars. I liked this wise elder with her diverse interests and I liked the absence of the child’s mother and father or Nana’s partner. Focusing in on that grandmother/daughter relationship gave the book a compactness and reminded me a little of Tove Jansson’s, The Summer Book.

I wondered though if I wanted the children I teach to consider the ongoing existence of a loved one after death to by analogous to ‘riding a whale amongst the stars’ – even as a metaphor. While I think the author is reaching for something along the lines of Larkin’s ‘what survives of us is love‘, I wondered if there was a danger that the book might obfuscate or confuse the young reader that it seems to be aimed at.

Different contexts will demand different treatments of loss and bereavement for young children and there are books that take all sorts of approaches. In Grandpa’s Island by Benji Davies, the Grandpa slips through a secret door and goes to live on a beautiful jungle island full of colour. It’s sad he’s gone but we know he’s happy there. Other books can be very direct indeed, Bird is Dead by Tiny Fisscher and Herma Starreveld features a cast of collaged birds who reflect on the death of their companion and their mixed feelings about him both before and after his demise while gathered around his gradually decomposing corpse.

Really good book talk from a wise teacher, parent or carer could help The Night Whale to land its message and help children see older people in a more rounded way. Without shared reading and book talk I have very slight misgivings – children can understand very complex things but they can also be very literal minded and I do wonder how many pupils will understand that Nana is no longer with her granddaughter, why that is and what it means to think about Nana being up in the sky on the back of a flying whale. Which is all to say that I fear that the poetry of the book is hampering its storytelling just a tiny bit.

It’s horses for courses, if you need your child to understand that death is death and that it is part of the natural world that comes to us all and that it is final, then this is not the book for you. If you want to sink into beautiful colours and reassuring musical language then this will be on your list for Key Stage 1. And if the book leads you into discussions that help your children understand that when someone dies or goes away, our memories of them and the experience love that remains can help us feel that they are still present in our lives – then it could be a very beautiful thing.