Wednesday, September 19

Moby Dick

Chasing the Great White Whale  
by Eric Kimmel
illustrated by Andrew Glass 
Feiwel & Friends 2012 

Finally! A version of Melville's classic I can actually finish! In one sitting! With pictures even! 

So, up front, I'm no fan of Moby Dick. I have tried and tried and simply cannot traverse the literary muck and mire of Melville's meandering meditation. I get about 60 or 70 pages in and I start to entertain notions of gnawing off my own leg. Then I realize I can put the book down and walk away, and I do. I have done this five or six times now and I just. cannot. read it.

What does it say about me that I love this picture book adaptation, told in well-crafted rhyme, with its details artfully smeared across the illustrations? Does it say I'm lazy, or that I have no patience, or is it simply that I find this to be the most accessible, tastefully done adaptation from classic literature I've seen in picture book form in a long time.

Yeah, you're right, it's probably a combination of all those things. 

Looking at it from the perspective of the intended audience, a child with an interest in pirates or sailing or whales, this book probably stands out above many others simply because the main characters are neither children or animal stand-ins. It's a curious thing that we tend to think a picture book as something that reflects the child or their world when, outside of books, their interest extends far beyond those small world limitations. I often wonder if we don't do children a disservice by presenting them books where adults are non-existent or merely two-dimensional foils for a child-like fantasy. How can we expect children to know how to interact with adults if they are constantly told adults are inconsequential?

This book doesn't address this issue, but it does faithfully (in its own way) hold true to Melville's tale (I know it, I just haven't read it) of Ishmael setting out on a whaling vessel with an obsessed captain, the lone survivor to tell the tale to the reader. There's just enough in the verse and images to get a feel for the grittiness of life on the seas once-upon-a-day, the adventure and the peril, and that hint of madness that you can sense even before you've learned the name for it. Kids see plenty of adults, and their behavior scares them, so perhaps they recognize more of the adult world than we give them credit for.

Kimmel and Glass don't shy away from this madness, or death for that matter. Ahab, his eyes wide, holds aloft the dubbloon he offers for the first man who sights the whale, drawn from a perspective both low and foreshortened so that he appears to be coming toward the reader. It's that in-your-face, impossible-to-ignore obsession that reads exactly as it should without belaboring the point in the text. And to an unfamiliar reader, the mention of Queequeg's coffin must seems like a random and bizarre detail until it becomes a de facto life raft when the ship has been smashed to bits. It registers as dark humor, that coffin as a life preserver, and the kind that introduces the picture book reader to the concept of foreshadowing and irony as part of their visual literacy. 

To be honest, when I first heard about this, I scoffed. I thought, What next, Anna Karenina? Sinclair's The Jungle? But after chuckling at the first couple pages I realized I was more interested in this telling than I ever was with the original.

That's the power of a good picture book: it can make you like something you thought you'd hate.

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