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Once upon a time, a child is born into love, beauty, and balance. But an existential threat looms, and the child has to go out into the world to meet it. Along the way, the child is transformed, and in some ways, the world changes, too.
That’s the basic story arc of The Whale Child (North Atlantic Books, 2020), a children’s book by brother-and-sister team Keith and Chenoa Egawa. It’s a universal structure, comforting and familiar in its timelessness. But in other ways, this illustrated book for 7-12 year olds is something new. In drawing from their Lummi and S’Klallam background, the Egawas bring a Native perspective that is relatively new to inclusion in children’s book publishing. And the story they tell, about the threat to Earth from pollution and global warming, is the most urgent issue of our time.
“The world is absolutely in crisis environmentally,” says Keith Egawa when asked why he and sister Chenoa wrote the book. “The world collectively needs to be educated about what’s going on. The challenge of changes needed in lifestyle, policy, and practices is absolutely enormous. Kids are going to be the ones who have to pick that up and carry it or make more sacrifices, voluntarily or otherwise. So we wanted to take on this subject that is really heavy, that can be overwhelming, to make sure children start to become aware, and are inspired to learn more about it.”
Two children are actually on a quest in The Whale Child. One is a young whale who is chosen by the water spirit to educate humans about threats to life in the ocean. He’s transformed, for a while, into a human boy. Then there’s Alex, a little girl of Coast Salish and Polynesian heritage, who lives close to the seashore in the Pacific Northwest. Her task is to follow the whale child as he shows her the threats of pollution and global warming to water, and thus to all interconnected life and creatures on Earth, and the vital human duty to “protect them all, from the big to the small.”
The serious subject is told with a lightness of touch that shows the Egawas really get a child’s point of view. They knew they wanted lots of illustrations—most books at this higher reading level don’t have quite enough, says Keith. Their numerous co-created watercolors invite readers of all abilities into the story and keep them turning the pages.
It’s easy to guess that family members and beloved landscapes were models for the illustrations—they show the warmth of familial love and a spiritual connection to nature. Chenoa says that the birth of their first nephew, a sister’s first child, inspired her and Keith to write the story. “We call him our whale child” says Chenoa of the family’s endearment for her nephew. That child was announced to his mother in a dream about seeing a baby in the eye of a whale. Unaware of the dream, one of the family chose an ancestral name for the child that means, in part, “treasure of the deep ocean.”
“In our teachings, they say when you carry a name from your ancestors, you need to uphold that name, and you need to walk with respect and integrity and care. You’re a divine being coming into the world in a very sacred way. Our children need to remember who they are and how they came into this world, and that they have this special purpose. In our teachings, all children have a very special gift, and when it is fully expressed, the whole world will benefit.”
Teaching, magic, and mystery thread through the book. But so does the sense of play so important to children’s well-being. There are blue cupcakes as well as air pollution, a squawking duck as well as piles of ocean plastic. And young Alex is not a passive recipient of wisdom. She uses her lessons to teach other kids, and as the whale child returns to his ocean, Alex and her friends take up their serious purpose: to advocate for the environment, one step at a time.
Though the story itself is universally appealing, publisher North Atlantic Books added value at the back of the book with a perfectly pitched 33-page educational supplement by Jessica Hernandez. Teachers and parents educating from home will particularly appreciate this useful resource. It contains a glossary of environmental terms, and student guides to Pacific Northwest Native and Coast Salish people provide the larger context of culture, history, and environmental justice. There’s also a Common Core discussion guide for grades 3, 4, and 5.
“Alex is Native American,” says Keith, “and her family dating back to time immemorial have known how to live in harmony with the Earth, but it’s not a Native American story per se. The setting is a perfect vehicle for conveying those lessons. Making it universal was very important to us.”
“We’re sharing our Indigenous wisdom at a time in the world when it’s very needed to remember this relationship,” says Chenoa. “We are so creative as human beings, we have the potential to recreate and restore and bring back into balance. We have to get out of the box that we’ve been taught and follow our hearts. In our teachings, we want our children to remember that their heart is the leader. Their heart is the one that holds the truth and beauty and kindness.”
Valerie Schloredt is the books editor at YES!, where she leads print and online coverage of literature, media, and film, with a focus on social change movements. Valerie worked for the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies in London for seven years, has followed the police reform process in Seattle as a citizen activist since 2010, and continues to monitor developments in both London and Seattle. She lives in Seattle, and speaks English.