Finding ways to connect to the people we've loved and lost can be a complex process. In author Kirsten Pendreigh and artist Crystal Smith's gentle and beautiful new picture book, Maybe a Whale (Groundwood Books), a young girl's mother suggests they take the epic trip the girl's beloved grandfather had planned for her but not had the chance to take her on before he passed away: kayaking along the Pacific coast to look for his favourite animal — whales.
The girl doesn't see how taking the trip without her grandfather will help anything, but she gamely agrees. As she encounters aquatic wonders with her mother, from glowing jellies to playful seals, she keeps her eyes open for the one thing she truly, deeply wants to see. But where are the whales?
Though it's hard to hold onto hope, the girl keeps going, and when she finally gets an encounter of sorts with the magnificent creatures her grandfather loved, it's like getting one last moment with him. Pendreigh's emotionally wise, lyrical text and Smith's luminous artwork come together to create a kid-friendly narrative about how the things–and people–loved by the ones we've lost can help us connect to them, even after they're gone.
We're speaking to both Pendreigh and Smith today about creating Maybe a Whale. They tell us about how they hope kids will follow their young protagonist's path in finding comfort in the beauty of nature, how they worked together to get the book's vibe exactly right, and how they each drew on their own experiences of outdoor travel and adventure to make the girl's world full vibrant and real for readers.
What was the strangest or most memorable part of creating this book for you?
Every time I revised the text or looked at art sketches, I had strong sensory memories of my own kayaking and camping trips. The squeeze of the lifejacket, the roll of the boat, the tightness of saltwater drying on skin, the rub of the little grains of sand that get everywhere! And those nights, I would dream of humpbacks and hear their magical breaths! I had struggled to find the right way to describe that sound. So many variations before it came to me — Pushhhhh! The sound worked and the meaning clicked with the girl’s resolution to keep going, keep moving, keep pushing. Keep looking for your sound!
When I first received the synopsis for the book from our editor, Emma Sakamoto, I immediately latched on to the idea of illustrating whales—something I love! Then, when I started reading the longer description and Kirsten’s manuscript, I realized that they never actually see whales on their journey! “Oh no, how do I illustrate a book about whales without any whales in it?!” I had to go on my own journey through the story and find the hidden moments where the whale’s peeked through (whether in the ocean, sky, or imagination)—letting the viewer see the whales, even as the characters felt and heard them through their other senses.
How do you view the elements we each contributed as working with each other in the final version?
Crystal’s art brought a completely new dimension to the story. Her sky whales were not something I had envisioned. They add a mysterious and almost spiritual layer. I love them! Crystal’s art also reinforced what I hoped children could feel in the story —the healing power of the natural world and its ability to transport us elsewhere. Her full spread focusing on the child breathing with the whales celebrates our imagination and the magic of whales. Just gorgeous!
The journey we take with the child – from denial and sadness to healing and reconnection— is also beautifully reflected in the changing light in Crystal’s visual narrative. Language and light working in tandem. Perfect!
Your CanLit News
Subscribe to Open Book’s newsletter to get local book events, literary content, writing tips, and more in your inbox
Do you relate to any of the characters in the book? If so, who and in what ways?
When illustrating the young girl in this book, I definitely drew on my own experiences of camping and spending time out in nature as a kid. The anticipation while packing, rolling up the sleeping bags, looking at maps. Even the naps during long car rides—the backseat crowded with gear—as our family headed off on camping holidays in the summer.
One of the first meals I cooked was on a trip where I got to be in charge of the ramen noodles on the camp stove! (I may have overcooked them in my enthusiasm.) Kirsten really captured the excitement and wonder of being a kid and having these experiences, bringing me back to those special childhood memories.
What do you hope young readers will take away from our book?
I hope children feel like they went on a voyage too! I hope the story inspires them to look for comfort and connection in natural spaces near where they live. It might not be going on an ocean kayaking or camping trip, it could be walking in a city park, listening to different birdsongs, the buzz of bees, perhaps noticing seasonal changes and rhythms that affect how we feel in our bodies. Remembering that we are part of the natural world is so important for our mental health!
At a deeper level, if one of our young readers has experienced loss, I hope they find solace in this reminder that the ones we love are still with us, even if we can’t see them anymore.
I think this book holds many layers and that more can be found each time it’s read. Kirsten’s immersive story brings us on the journey but—along the way—asks so many questions and leaves us room to add between the lines.
I hope young readers will begin to understand how much there is to discover and explore in the world around them, things they might not be able to see right away, but maybe if they ask questions, are quiet, or persistent—or if they change their perspective!
The perspectives shown in the book are constantly changing; looking at a window from both sides, exploring the ocean under the waterline, watching sea creatures from below, the light and shadows from outside and inside a tent…even the perspective of our imagination. These visuals mirror Kirsten’s gentle narrative as the young girl’s perspective is changed throughout the journey.
Kirsten Pendreigh is a children’s author and poet from Vancouver, BC. Her books celebrate our early instincts to care for the plants and creatures that share our planet. She is the author of Luna’s Green Pet, illustrated by Carmen Mok. Kirsten’s poems can be found in Canadian literary magazines and in Best Canadian Poetry 2021. Formerly a CBC and NPR journalist, Kirsten also writes non-fiction for children.
Crystal Smith is the daughter of a lighthouse keeper who discovered her passion for wildlife when she was small. She illustrates the natural world to spark curiosity and wonder, kindle concern, and illuminate issues. Crystal currently lives in Victoria, BC. She is currently illustrating a second children's book coming from Groundwood Books in fall 2024.