In Laguna San Ignacio, Mexico, this year, I saw grey whales from so close that when one of them spouted, a great fountain of moist air and, shall we say nostril contents, showered over all the people in the boat. What astonishing life-forms they are! Their size puts us humans in our place. The pangas, fishing boats that work for the whale watching tour companies, take visitors out into the lagoon, then shut their engines off and wait. The whales appear. It’s a humbling experince.
This one came up under the boat and surfaced on the other side. If it had intended to tip us over, there is no doubt it could have. From the panga, we could see the barnacles encrusting the rubbery, marbled skin. We could even spot the tiny eye before a sudden dive rocked the boat and the whale, seeming to laugh at us, slapped its tail-fluke and was gone.
So I started thinking, how do we portray whales in books for young readers? It turns out that if you look at children’s nonfiction over the years, the public misinformation of generations shows up. This Hakai Magazine article plots the delivery of inaccurate science to kids. Excerpt:
In a 2016 article called, tellingly, “Cetacean Frustration,” four British scientists surveyed picture books that feature whales and other cetaceans. Of 116 books, 74 had errors. The rate was higher in fiction, but almost half of the nonfiction books also contained errors.
Part of the problem, of course, is that children’s books often hang around for generations. Parents tend to buy their kids the books that they themselves loved as children. But with nonfiction, those books get dated really fast. And in a world where these giants of the ocean are seriously endangered by our irresponsible behavior over the centuries, don’t we owe young readers the facts as best we know them, in all their beautiful complexity?