This article discusses two children’s picture books, The Snail and the Whale (2003), written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler, and The Secret of Black Rock (2017) by Joe Todd-Stanton, as vibrant and fantastic engagements with multispecies worlds. Drawing on new materialism and multispecies studies, the article argues that these two picture books exemplify the possibilities inherent in children’s literature of imaging encounters with multispecies communities and apprehending the dynamic agencies of the material world. With reference to the real marine animals and environments alluded to by the books, it addresses the limitations and opportunities of anthropomorphism, and the significance of the concept of agency in the environmental humanities and children’s literature studies. It argues that the gleeful rhymes of The Snail and the Whale and the awe-inspiring illustrations of The Secret of Black Rock are not mere entertainment but serious and playful explorations of connections between bodies and language, stories and communities, children and adults, human and non-human animals, rocks and fish, and agency and the more-than-human world.
A menacing black rock that moves mysteriously about the ocean is revealed to be an enormous yet gentle creature, home to thousands of fish. On another rock in a windswept harbor, a snail writes a message to a whale, and climbs on its tail to begin a journey around the world. The Secret of Black Rock by Joe Todd-Stanton (2017) and The Snail and the Whale by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler (2003) are playful and fantastic stories for children. If, however, as Jane Bennett suggests, we could do with “a touch of anthropomorphism” to understand the creative agencies of the non-human world,1 we should perhaps look closely at spaces and genres in which anthropomorphism has traditionally been employed. Stories for children frequently envisage speaking animals or plants and reflect on fantastical possibilities for action and being. This article draws on new materialism and multispecies studies to discuss depictions of agency and multispecies communities in The Snail and the Whale and The Secret of Black Rock, and makes a case for the significance of children’s literature to the environmental humanities.
In Reinventing Eden, Carolyn Merchant calls for a transformed story about the relationship between humans and nature. She argues that we need to go beyond stories that assume human domination over the earth and instead cultivate stories of interconnectedness that promote what she terms a “partnership ethic,”2 which “would not accept the idea of subduing the earth, or even dressing and keeping the garden, since both entail total domestication and control by human beings. Instead, each earthly place would be a home, or community, to be shared with other living and nonliving things. The needs of humans and nonhumans would be dynamically balanced.”3
Two ideas have prominence here. One is the vision of homes and shared communities made up of living and non-living things. Equally compelling is an image of earthly places and creatures as agents, as active and free, not submitted to “total domestication” or “control by human beings.” Along similar lines, Val Plumwood suggests turning “to certain kinds of imaginative literature which write nature as agent.”4 With their ambulatory rocks and literate snails, one place to look for “agentic” stories of homes “to be shared with other living and non-living things” is picture books for children. As Zoe Jaques argues, “By imagining ‘being’ as operating beyond bodily or environmental constraint, children’s fiction, in its attempts to address young readers, can offer sophisticated interventions into debates about what it means to be human or non-human and offer ethical imaginings of a ‘posthuman’ world.”5 The anthropomorphized rocks and animals of children’s literature give form to the world apprehended by the new materialisms, in which, as Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann explain, agency “is not to be necessarily and exclusively associated with human beings and human intentionality, but it is a pervasive and inbuilt property of matter, as part and parcel of its generative dynamism.”6 The mobility of the whale and of Black Rock itself can be read as metaphors of the agencies of the natural world.
The Snail and the Whale and The Secret of Black Rock are set at the intersection between the ocean and the shore, between “wilderness” and civilization: a busy shipping port and a large shipping town. The whale and Black Rock are both huge, agentive beings who roam the oceans. They are also homes. The whale becomes the home of a tiny snail, and Black Rock is home to an entire oceanic ecosystem. Nevertheless, these powerful creatures are in danger from humans and need to negotiate methods to dwell together in this world. These picture books thus illustrate Merchant’s vision of a new story based on a “partnership ethic,” but they also go further. Not only is “each earthly place . . . a home” but also beings are homes as well.
Using Merchant’s call for new stories as a departure point, this article discusses The Snail and the Whale and The Secret of Black Rock as multifaceted texts that at once reveal and play with perspectives on multispecies communities, child-adult relationships, and the agency of matter. Material ecocriticism understands “the world’s material phenomena [as] knots in a vast network of agencies, which can be ‘read’ and interpreted as forming narratives, stories.”7 Likewise, scholars working in multispecies studies attest that “beyond mere survival, particular lifeways in all their resplendent diversity emerge from interwoven patterns of living and dying, of being and becoming, in a larger world.”8 Multispecies communities are central to both these picture books, which represent humans as entangled within sustaining and life-giving assemblages of animals, rocks, and water. Reading the fictional animals and landscapes depicted here in counterpoint with the real animals and oceans that they gesture toward, I discuss the limitations and possibilities afforded by the use of anthropomorphism, vivid imagery, and playful language, and address the intersections of the meanings of agency in the fields of material ecocriticism and children’s literature studies. Attentive to the ways in which communication and storytelling are positioned within the narratives themselves, I argue that these books envisage the formation of new stories of interdependence and adventure, told by, in Donna Haraway’s terms, “unpredictable kinds of we” working together to create communities of hope, “shared by other living and non-living things.”9
Children’s Literature and the Environmental Humanities
Ecocritical responses to children’s literature have been gaining traction in recent years, but there is still much work to be done. According to Laurence Buell, “For ecocriticism the challenge is compounded by the glaring asymmetry between the inherent importance and richness of the archive [of environmental stories for children] and the movement’s overwhelming emphasis thus far on for-adult genres.”10 In 2016 Clare Echterling pointed out that after the flagship publication of the anthology Wild Things: Children’s Culture and Ecocriticism in 2004, the field had been slow to develop.11 This is changing, as demonstrated by a rapidly increasing number of monographs and essay collections on children’s literature, ecocriticism, and posthumanism.12 The notion of “ecopedagogy,” as defined by Greta Gaard, has been a popular approach, which examines how children’s literature may contribute to the formation of “ecocitizens.”13 There are few studies of children’s literature directly referencing new materialism, but Macarena García-González and Justyna Deszcz-Tryhubczak suggest that the new materialisms have a lot to offer children’s literature studies: “A focus on matter provides openings for research in our field, as it forces us to rethink adult-child relationalities—with a blurring of the adult/child binary—and to reimagine critical interpretation with an attention to materialities that exceed the representational paradigm.”14 While this article does retain a focus on literary representation, it also draws attention to the materiality of language and image, and the relationship between bodies and signs. Rather than analyze how the snail, the whale, and the black rock in these stories contribute to children’s understanding of environments, I look at what they can tell us about the position of children and adults in a multispecies world, drawing on Jaques’s view that “children’s fiction offers a heretofore neglected resource for understanding cultures of the human and non-human and often questions the nature, parameters and dominion of humanity.”15
The Snail and the Whale is written by the celebrated British children’s author Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler. The duo is best known for the internationally beloved The Gruffalo, but Donaldson claims that The Snail and the Whale is her favorite of their joint books, as she feels it captures “something of the soulful whimsy of the Edward Lear poems [she] enjoyed as a child.”16 In exuberant rhyme, The Snail and the Whale tells the story of a tiny sea snail who longs to travel, so writes a note on a rock with her silvery trail: “lift wanted around the world.”17 A whale comes to help and bears her away on a marvelous adventure. When the whale is confused by the noise of speedboats and becomes beached, the snail uses her trail once more to alert some children, who rally the village to keep the whale alive. Thus the worlds of the snail, the whale, and the villagers are intertwined: their homes are shared, their lives are open to moments of encounter and connection.
Written and illustrated by Joe Todd-Stanton, The Secret of Black Rock was published in 2017 by Flying Eye books. Todd-Stanton draws on a number of visual styles, including graphic novels and Tove Jansson’s Moomin stories, to create books in which the pictures are capable of telling most of the story. Young Erin longs to go out to sea, but it is too dangerous because of “the legend of Black Rock,” a terrifying mountain that can appear anywhere in the water without warning. When Erin finally manages to encounter Black Rock, she discovers that the frightening, spiky rock is only the tip of the iceberg: underneath the waves, Black Rock is an amiable, anthropomorphized creature who is home to an astonishing array of sea life. After Black Rock saves her life, Erin needs to help the adults around her to see what she sees. Sarah Donaldson writes: “The gentle environmental message takes on a kind of magic in Todd-Stanton’s pictures of Erin suspended in the ocean among incandescent jellyfish or facing down a monstrous, weaponized fishing fleet in the moonlight.”18 On one level, both books are appealing, accessible renditions of simple environmental activism: to save the whales and stop the destruction of coastal environments. On another level, however, both books encapsulate a “kind of magic” that is related to their depictions of vibrant, agentic multispecies communities.
Homes and Communities
Stories for children tend to be structured around the pattern of home-away-home: the story begins in a home, then describes a journey ending in a return to or reintegration with home.19The Snail and the Whale and The Secret of Black Rock follow this pattern, with the proviso that the homes at the end of the narratives are transformed. Erin, her mother, and her dog become welcome, frequent visitors to the community living on Black Rock, and the whale becomes home to not only the snail but also her friends and family. As mobile, agentic beings who are also home to communities of animals, the whale and Black Rock invite readers to expand their own conceptions and experiences of home.
The whale and Black Rock are not unique in their dual identities as being and home. “Home” is often imagined partly by what and whom it excludes, but if our home is “to be shared with other living and nonliving things,”20 it becomes a much more inclusive space. As Haraway points out in When Species Meet, our own bodies are home to thousands of other beings: “I love the fact that human genomes can be found in only about 10 percent of all the cells that occupy the mundane space I call my body; the other 90 percent of the cells are filled with the genomes of bacteria, fungi, protists. . . . I am vastly outnumbered by my tiny companions; better put, I become as an adult human being in company with these tiny messmates.”21
Our bodies house communities of microscopic creatures that also form connections and communities with other such “knotted beings.” According to Haraway, humans and other animals are “beings in encounter”: “As ordinary knotted beings, they are also always meaning-making figures that gather up those who respond to them into unpredictable kinds of ‘we.’”22 The whale and the snail, and the Black Rock with its hundreds of fish, are composite beings, “unpredictable kinds of we,” that move about the world, open to further encounters.
As Thom van Dooren, Eben Kirksey, and Ursula Münster point out: “All living beings emerge from and make their lives within multispecies communities. . . . Multispecies scholars are asking how human lives, lifeways, and accountabilities are folded into these entanglements.”23 Building on the ways that posthumanism has dismantled the boundaries between humans and non-humans, these scholars embrace metaphors of entanglement, care, interwoven patterns, and mutual becoming. Deborah Bird Rose and van Dooren advocate “an ethical practice of ‘becoming-witness’ which seeks to explore and respond to others in the fullness of their particular ‘ethos’ or way of life.”24 The “ethos” of a species includes the ways members of a species relate to themselves and others—their essences, their cultures, their ways of being. Brett Buchanan points out that philosophical ethology and, by extension, multispecies studies, concerns itself with real animals, not representations of them: “and addresses such issues as animal subjectivity, friendship, communication, and sexuality, all as meaningful modes of animal comportment. Agency and embodied subjectivity are returned to animals as bearers and givers of meaning.”25
By attending to the fictional animals and rocks of these stories, I am thus departing from a key tenet of this kind of work, which if embraced in full would encompass the physical presences of animals, books, and children. Likewise, García-González and Deszcz-Tryhubczak note that “the full consequences of embracing relationalities postulated within new materialism also entails understanding texts as matter; that is, as active entities whose meaning is not waiting to be decoded.”26 Others have discussed the material reality and natural histories of picture books themselves27 and analyzed the posthuman resonances of the embodied ways children often respond to picture books.28 Even on the level of literary analysis, however, the terminology and observations of multispecies studies and new materialism provide useful lenses through which to read these books, which, as I will show, are deeply concerned with the interdependence of various aspects of the human and more-than-human world. The human children depicted in these two picture books model the art of “becoming witness” to the vibrant multispecies worlds they discover around them.29
Animals, Anthropomorphism, and Agency
Children’s literature has always been populated with animals, often speaking animals,30 and can thus be said to have always been concerned with imagining multispecies communities. Animals are seen as appropriate characters in stories for children for a number of reasons. For one, animals are seen as largely inappropriate protagonists in novels for adults.31 As Greg Garrard observes, “Anthropomorphic animal narratives are generally denigrated as ‘childish,’ thereby associating a dispassionate, even alienated perspective with maturity.”32 Animal characters are seen as playful, diverting, childish. Children, however, are expected to be interested in animals and to enjoy them. Children are also viewed as essentially closer to animals than adults are. In Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, the “bestial” nature of the boy Max is affirmed when he becomes king of the wild things, but it is initially revealed when Max wears a wolf suit and torments the family dog with a fork.33 Of course, stories with animal characters are often not really about animals at all. Animals in children’s stories are frequently anthropomorphized to the extent that they hardly bear any resemblance to real animals. In Kenneth Graham’s Wind in the Willows (1908), Ratty, Toad, Mole, and Badger are not so much animals as Edwardian gentlemen.
Anthropomorphism, or the projection of human attributes onto animals, can interfere with the apprehension of animals on their own terms. A sea snail cannot really write words or dream of a journey across the ocean. Rocks do not have legs and faces. Perhaps representing animals and rocks as having humanlike desires, features, and agency can blind readers to the real but different forms of agency that creatures and matter actually have. For example, Robyn Callard suggests that anthropomorphized and sentimentalized depictions of animal mothers and babies in children’s picture books restrict children’s access to knowledge about real animal behavior, while simultaneously projecting an idealized and limited representation of their own mothers.34 Reading about anthropomorphized fish does not necessarily help the reader imagine what it is really like to be a fish, and Perry Nodelman suggests it might even induce readers to look down on fish for not having the same capabilities or desires as themselves.35 These criticisms could be applied to The Snail and the Whale, in which the snail is unhappy on her entirely appropriate wet black rock and desires a worldwide adventure.
Donaldson and Scheffler’s snail appears to be a common whelk (Buccinum undatum) or a dog-whelk, Nucella lapillus, a carnivorous sea snail commonly found around the coasts of Britain and by nature a fairly sedentary creature. Marine biologist John Crothers notes that, after a year, he has found marked individuals within thirty centimeters of where he left them.36 In the picture book, the snail’s companion snails, who have no desire to leave home, are depicted as stuffy and unimaginative, surely a somewhat unfair criticism. In a talk about the threatened population of varied and colorful snails on the island of Hawai‘i, van Dooren commented that “snails, after all, are not commonly known for their propensity to undertake long journeys, not by land, and certainly not by sea.”37 Nevertheless, the ancestors of the spectacularly diverse and beautiful snails must have arrived there somehow. The best guess of scientists is that a miniature ancestor of the Hawaiian snails crawled onto the wings of a bird and hitched a lift across the oceans. So, while snails are not known for long journeys, they do occasionally make them, and not only in books for children. Donaldson’s anthropomorphized travelling snail is not quite so impossible as she first appears.
While anthropomorphism can obscure the true “ethos” of animals, it can also play a role in apprehending the vibrant agencies of the non-human world. Timothy Clark summarizes: “It can be at once a mode of understanding non-human animals, a profound barrier to such an understanding, a mode of appropriating animal otherness or a term that rebounds into the open question of what the human actually is.”38 Anthropomorphism can thus, paradoxically, both distort and facilitate encounters with the natural world. Reflecting on Darwin’s propensity to anthropomorphize worms, which ultimately gave him insight into their ways of being, Bennett writes: “In a vital materialism, an anthropomorphic element in perception can uncover a whole world of resonances and resemblances—sounds and sights that echo and bounce far more than would be possible were the universe to have a hierarchical structure. We at first may see only a world in our own image, but what appears next is a swarm of ‘talented’ and vibrant materialities (including the seeing self).”39
Thus while anthropomorphism can be viewed as hopelessly anthropocentric, seen in another light it can challenge anthropocentrism.40 Anthropomorphism is often regarded as inappropriate simply because animals and objects are commonly assumed to lack agency. As Iovino and Oppermann point out: “Compared to a human endowed with mind and agentic determinations, the material world—a world that includes ‘inanimate’ matter as well as all nonhuman forms of living—has always been considered passive, inert, unable to convey any independent expression of meaning.”41 The fantastical elements of children’s literature have always challenged these limitations, often by assigning personality, mobility, and intention to those assumed to lack them.
Black Rock itself is an excellent example of the way in which anthropomorphism in children’s literature ascribes agency to inanimate matter. An enormous rock that moves unpredictably about the sea to the peril of passing ships, Black Rock enables readers to discern, in Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s words, “in the most mundane of substances a liveliness.”42 As Cohen notes, stone is frequently invoked as a symbol of coldness and inertness,43 but in reality, over vast stretches of time, it flows, it collects, it tilts, it shatters, it shapes and is shaped by the sea. “Compounded of sediments and telluric cogencies, a maker of heterogeneous aggregates, stone accretes, contains, conveys,” writes Cohen.44 Todd-Stanton explains that Black Rock was inspired by a strange log that moves about Crater Lake in Oregon: “An ancient hemlock tree, known as ‘the Old Man of the Lake,’ has been floating completely upright for more than 100 years.”45 By making Black Rock a stone rather than a tree, Todd-Stanton chooses a substance at once more dangerous to humans and more fantastic and ascribes agency to a substance whose liveliness is normally overlooked.
Discussions of the representations of agency in children’s literature are complicated by an awareness of children’s literature as largely an “adult practice”: written, published, vetted, promoted, and purchased primarily by adults. Representations of children’s agency within literary texts form part of the socialization of children and can thus be seen to serve adult agendas and to take place within a world where the real balance of power is tipped strongly in the adult’s favor. Representations of the power and agency of children in literary texts may even play a part in children accepting a more limiting role outside them.46 Jaqueline Rose has famously argued that children’s literature, as written and published by adults, has remarkably little to do with real children as it is premised on “the impossible relation between adult and child”: “Children’s literature sets up a world in which the adult comes first (author, maker, giver) and the child comes after (reader, product, receiver), but when neither of them enter the space between.”47 As Marah Gubar explains, in an effort to recognize the “power imbalance that complicates the relationship between older and younger people,” Rose emphasizes the radical alterity between adult and child.48 In contrast, Gubar advocates a “kinship” model of childhood agency, in which children, like adults, are both “scripted and scripting.” A “kinship model” acknowledges that “children, like adults, have agency, even if aspects of the aging process are likely to limit the form or degree of agency that they have.”49 “The concept of kinship indicates relatedness, connection, and similarity without implying homogeneity, uniformity, and equality.”50 This notion of a kinship model of agency is a natural fit for metaphors of entanglement employed in multispecies scholarship, which “focusses on the multitudes of lively agents that bring one another into being through entangled relations that include, but always exceed, dynamics of predator and prey, parasite and host, researcher and researched, symbiotic partner, or indifferent neighbor.”51
In The Snail and the Whale and The Secret of Black Rock, adult attempts to protect or educate children are depicted as restrictive and damaging. On the school playground in The Snail and the Whale, the children are depicted by Scheffler as happy and creative—moving, laughing, and drawing in the dirt, but as soon as they are called into the classroom they become limp and uninspired, despite their cheerful paintings of nature displayed behind the blackboard. Likewise, Erin is depicted as having a natural affinity for nature, but her curiosity is stifled by the adults who fear for her safety. These fears end up endangering Erin herself as well as Black Rock and the ecosystem that depends on it. These two stories question the role of adults in restricting the agency of children, and they depict children as particularly receptive to a life-giving apprehension of the agency of the non-human.
The notion of children having a special connection with nature harks back to Romanticism, and it could be argued that the picture books in general present a romanticized version of nature. The benign and friendly ocean depicted in these books is a simplified, positive environment. Erin’s mother is right to caution Erin—a child disappearing into the ocean in a storm is unlikely to survive. In contrast, positivity and happy endings are a generic requirement of books for young children. For Buell, this is a potential problem. He cautions that “the sense of urgency surrounding eco-didactic agendas of whatever sort in contemporary children’s literature may easily be contained by such pleasurable elements as adventuresome plotlines, enticing illustrations, and upbeat closure.”52 While this is true, and all three of these elements are intrinsic parts of The Snail and the Whale and The Secret of Black Rock, to dismiss them as frivolous risks missing the point. All literature, even dark, pessimistic literature, contains aspects of pleasure. It is unhelpful to view “enticing illustrations” merely as bait or distraction. Todd-Stanton’s illustrations are indeed enticing, but this does not preclude the fact that they are nuanced responses to the wonder of oceanic ecosystems. Likewise, Donaldson’s playful and pleasurable use of the rhymes snail, whale, tail, and tale does not just decorate her story but generates it. “Adventuresome plotlines, enticing illustrations, and upbeat closure”53 are essential structural components of what are, at once, playful, joyful, and serious engagements with the natural world.
Enticing Illustrations and Multispecies Communities
It is through the visual mode of illustration that both books locate themselves in relation to specific regions and ecosystems. In the opening illustration of The Snail and the Whale, a ship in the harbor called Pride of Glasgow situates the creatures in a named place. At the beginning of The Secret of Black Rock, the species depicted are those one would expect to find near a Newfoundland fishing village: seals, puffins, and fish in shades of brown and grey. The lighthouse on Black Rock’s head is modeled on lighthouses Todd-Stanton admired while on holiday in Canada: “I also try and connect things to the real world as much as possible, so I looked at a lot of coral reef photography and animals local to Newfoundland.”54 Illustrations also enable the depiction of multiple perspectives and relationships in a way that is difficult to achieve with words alone. For Kimberley Reynolds, “a crucial part of the explanation for why children’s literature is so good at stimulating and nurturing innovation is that many children’s texts operate on two semiotic systems simultaneously: the visual and the textual . . . the word-image dynamic is particularly adept at giving expression to meanings and concepts that reside at the edges of language.”55
The coastal setting of The Snail and the Whale and The Secret of Black Rock is particularly apt for representations of agentic nature entangling with human presences. Stacy Alaimo’s concept of “marine trans-corporeality” links “humans to global networks of consumption, waste, and pollution, capturing the strange agencies of the ordinary stuff of our lives.”56 Items such as plastic bags and other waste have a “strange agency” that can propel them far out to sea to the detriment of marine animals. The illustrations of these books quietly draw attention to this agency. The rubbish depicted in the harbor in The Snail and the Whale, and the anchor and fishing twine tangled around Black Rock’s legs in The Secret of Black Rock, attest to presence and agency of human waste. The illustrations anchor the texts in rich—and compromised—multispecies environments.
From the beginning of The Secret of Black Rock, Erin embodies wonder for and curiosity about the natural world. On the opening two-page spread, Erin is already situated in a multispecies community. She is depicted lying on her stomach at the end of a small jetty with her dog Archie, gazing into the water where fish glide and seals frolic. In the background is her house, the shipping town, and a harbor filled with ships. This scene is visually repeated at the end of the book, but with a difference: Erin and Archie still observe the seals and the fish, but instead of lying on the jetty they are draped happily on Black Rock’s nose. Their multispecies community has moved farther out to sea and expanded a thousand-fold. The seal now looks directly up at Archie, and their gazes meet. On the opposite page, safe in the dark under his new lighthouse, Black Rock plays with a seal who smiles, meeting its gaze, while shoals of fish and groups of jellyfish drift around them. Another seal and a turtle play hide-and-seek around Black Rock’s arm, again, looking directly at each other.
This visual depiction of multiple creatures looking at one another can be achieved in a picture book perhaps more eloquently than in any other medium. It is also a central feature of The Snail and the Whale. The creatures depicted in the text, in Scheffler’s characteristic style, have round eyes and sideways glances—they look at one another and at the reader, commenting on the action. The whale and the snail look into each other’s eyes in nearly every frame. The gazes of many other animals are also recorded: the eyes of seagulls, cats, dogs, bears, penguins, turtles, and sharks are wide and expressive. While the intensely visual nature of these interspecies relationships is a form of anthropomorphism, as for many animals, other senses such as smell and touch are more significant than sight, it is still an effective mode of portraying multiple, decentralized connections between agentive beings. The prominence of the gaze between human and animal, and between animals, brings to mind John Berger’s seminal essay “Why Look at Animals?”57 Berger argues that animals have become something to be observed but not encountered. He says a gaze between human and animal in which the otherness of the other is acknowledged and met is largely a thing of the past—but this is the kind of gaze depicted in these books. It differs from Laura Mulvey’s concept of the “male gaze,”58 with its assumption of a power imbalance, resembling instead, in Iovino’s terms, a “horizontal”59 connection between equals.
Although the animals in these books are illustrated with large eyes and friendly expressions, they are depicted as recognizable species. On his website, Scheffler apologizes for his nonanatomic rendering of the whale’s tail. In the illustrations of the book, the whale’s tail is curved upward, sticking out of the water, for the snail to ride on it: “I enjoyed doing the big landscapes. But had to take great liberties with scale and whale anatomy to make this work—I know they don’t really bend like that.”60 The drawings of the whale and the snail thus simultaneously invoke real species, and they fantastically reinterpret them to imagine an unlikely relationship that none the less holds echoes of real symbiotic connections.61 The dense, colorful constellation of aesthetically pleasing species that surround Black Rock, however, exceeds that found in any particular oceanic environment. There is a blue whale, a sperm whale, and a huge red octopus. There are squid, clown fish, puffer fish, swordfish, stingrays, crabs, turtles, and angler fish bearing their strange lanterns from the deep. The abundance of life resembles a rich and colorful tropical coral reef, and its appearance off the coast of a Newfoundland shipping town is nothing short of miraculous. While one could complain about the inaccuracy of this impossible ecosystem, Todd-Stanton’s rich and alluring illustrations invite experiences of wonder at the natural world by transposing it into a fantastical context. The New Zealand children’s writer Margaret Mahy explains that “rather than thinking of the imagination as the ability to summon into being the vision of things that have no real existence I think of it as the ability to work creatively with reality.”62 These books work creatively with the reality of multispecies communities, in ways that do not merely entertain but envision the dynamic assemblages that make up our world.
The Power of Stories
Both The Secret of Black Rock and The Snail and the Whale are stories about the power of stories, and the difficulty of rewriting them. Before Erin and the reader encounter Black Rock directly, they encounter “the legend of BLACK ROCK!”63 An image of Black Rock is depicted menacingly in a dark, foamy sea, painted on a parchment adorned with skull and crossbones. On the opposite page, we meet characters who perpetuate this legend: “Every fisherman and fisherwoman had a scary story to tell. ‘It never stays in the same place and it could smash a boat to pieces!’ ‘It’s as big as a mountain and as sharp as a swordfish!’”64 The speech bubbles of the fisherman and woman are illustrated with Gothic visions of terrifying scenarios. Erin is horrified and fascinated. She wants to see for herself but is not allowed out to sea, as, according to the legend itself, it is much too dangerous. The power of this negative legend is reinforced when, later in the narrative, Erin attempts to tell a different story. Black Rock saves her from drowning, and she discovers it is a joyful, benign creature, home to a multitude of sea life. The text on this page (as in the rest of the book) is deceptively simple, but the picture is iconic: “Back home, Erin tried to explain how Black Rock had saved her, but no one would listen properly.”65 Little Erin stands in the center, ringed about with adults who tower over her. Her small speech bubble depicts a smiling, rosy-cheeked Black Rock. In all the adult’s minds, however, looming over them all is a shared thought bubble containing a very different picture: an angry, monstrous Black Rock with clawlike hands raised menacingly out of the water.
Erin’s attempt to tell a new story initially fails, illustrating Merchant’s observation that “a new ending . . . will not come about if we simply read and reread the story into which we were born. A new story can only be written by human action.”66 Far from convincing the adults to care for Black Rock, Erin’s new story prompts their decision to immediately destroy it. It is up to Erin to climb out of her window, row out to sea, and perch on Black Rock’s nose to stop the ships with “metal claws and drills” from tearing it apart. It is not just human action that enables the story to change, however, but the action of the natural world and the creatures within it: “One by one all the creatures that lived on Black Rock swam up to the surface. In the moonlight, the sea lit up. The fishermen and fisherwomen had never seen such a beautiful sight! In that moment, they saw how wrong they were. Black Rock wasn’t a monster but a home to all these amazing creatures.”67
Acting together with the sea creatures, the rock itself, the moon, and what appears to be an occurrence of luminescence, Erin enables the fishermen and fisherwomen to experience a vision so splendid that it changes their minds and their stories forever. This moment of encounter and communication enables, for the first time, the fishermen and fisherwomen to embrace the arts of attentiveness—they can attend, finally, to the being and ethos of Black Rock instead of perpetuating myths that will destroy it.
Like The Secret of Black Rock, The Snail and the Whale is also in many ways a story about the power of stories. Merchant remarks: “As we use narrative to re-create the human place in the more-than-human world, we can learn to reconnect with nature as an equal partner. For [David] Abram that reconnection occurs through ‘the practice of spinning stories that have the rhythm and lilt of the local soundscape, tales for the tongue, tales that want to be told, again and again.’”68
The Snail and the Whale is certainly a tale “for the tongue” that wants “to be told, again and again.” It does not directly transcribe nature, but its rhythm, repetition, and playful, exuberant rhymes underscore a deep and life-giving connection between narrative and the natural world. This is nowhere more apparent than its gleeful use of the homophones tail and tale. The “tale” of the snail and the whale is the story of a sea snail who hitches a ride on the “tail” of a whale. Thus the story itself, the “tale,” is dependent on an identical-sounding piece of the whale’s anatomy—his tail. Together with the title characters, the snail and the whale, these words headline a list of cheeky and glorious rhymes that echo throughout the text: tail, tale, snail, whale, trail, fail, frail, pale, sail. These rhyming words encapsulate the essences of the protagonists and generate the narrative—the whale and the snail exist together in the story because they rhyme. The narrative emerges from a pattern of sounds connecting body, sign, and story in a way that resonates with Wendy Wheeler’s work on biosemiotics—through semiotic processes such as DNA, the natural world creatively generates signs that in turn generate matter, and the mechanics of evolution, as well as language, can be described as “play.”69 Karen Coats points out that the meaning of children’s poetry cannot be reduced to the interpretation of its content, and that “such interpretation is in itself an effacement of the true meaning . . . which, . . . is at least partly to connect the body to language in a material and sensual, rather than linguistically or conceptually meaningful way.”70 The “ai” sounds in the poetry of the picture book delight readers and listeners and connect their bodies to language, while conceptually linking the bodies of the snail and the whale.
When reading this story to my children, they have often asked why the snail is described as having an “itchy foot.” It does not seem to make sense, as snails do not appear to have any feet.
I have always explained that it is sort of a joke; it means that the snail is restless and wants to travel the world. I was delighted to discover, however, that snails do indeed have “feet,” or at least a “foot.” What nonexperts in snail anatomy would call its body, is, in fact, known as its foot.72
The other snails do not understand the snail with the itchy foot and implore her to “stop wriggling, sit still, stay put!”73 Stuck on the rock, the snail is bored and disconsolate until she has the brilliant idea to write a message with her silvery trail:
Donaldson’s literate and anthropomorphized creatures do not directly represent the natural world. Animals do not speak to one another with words, and they certainly do not write notes in English to one another. However, as Rose and van Dooren point out: “We are participants in a more than human world, a life-world that is communicating through and through. Almost all of the communication has nothing to do with us.”75 The trails of snails do not generally form sentences, but they do speak of the presence and the pathways of the snail; they do record, for a while, the snail’s meanderings; they do shine silver in certain lights; and they do intrigue children. The mucous production of snails enables them to move, but their trails are also methods by which they communicate with one another: snails will seek out and follow the trails left by their own species, enabling them to conserve energy and assist with reproduction.76 By allowing the snail to write with her trail, Donaldson not only hit on an ingenious narrative device but also enabled the snail to express herself in a way that is congruent with the gifts and limitations of her own body, like that other famous animal scribe in children’s literature—the spider Charlotte from Charlotte’s Web.77 Parts of The Snail and the Whale can thus be understood as instances of what Aaron M. Moe terms “zoopoetics”: “the process of discovering innovative breakthroughs in form through an attentivness to another species bodily poiesis.”78 While snails “write” with their trails, whales communicate by singing. Curiously, their songs also communicate very powerfully with humans. Katharine Dow remarks on “the huge positive impact that the popular dissemination of audio recordings of humpback whale song had on the campaign to end whaling.”79 Appropriately, Donaldson’s “humpback whale, immensely long, / Who sang to the snail a wonderful song,” also sings.80
The snail’s trail makes an appearance again at the most crucial point of the story. When the whale becomes beached, the snail who felt “so small” as they traveled the world realizes that her smallness can now come in handy: “I can’t move on land, I’m too big, moaned the whale.”81 The snail discovers she can save the whale after all, and in a sequence that echoes the mood and language of the beginning of the book, she enters a classroom and writes on the blackboard:
As Dow points out, “the Save the Whale campaign was one of the first modern manifestations of the Green movement and cetaceans retain a prominent role in environmentalism.”83 The snail’s words are particularly moving for the way they parse the familiar environmental slogan, while at the same time forming the climax to a rhythmic repetition of the book’s key rhymes: “snail . . . snail . . . pale . . . trail . . . trail . . . snail . . . trail . . . whale!” In this scenario, it is the children who are attentive to the being and ethos of the snail. The liveliness and agency of the natural world are out of place in the classroom—the teacher is depicted as horrified by the presence of the snail, but the children’s natural curiosity and wonder enable them to read the snail’s message and respond to it.
The snail’s “tale,” expressed through her “trail,” saves the whale’s life. But the tale has still more work to do. Once they are free, the snail and the whale return to the snail’s former home at the dock. In some ways, The Snail and the Whale is the tale of a tale of a tail. The snail and the whale tell their story to the community of snails they left behind, who, after some obligatory clichés—“how time’s flown / And haven’t you grown”—not only listen but also are inspired to join the adventure. The story changes their lives: “And then the whale held out his tail / And on crawled snail after snail after snail.”84 As one who has left home in search of adventure and now find myself settled on the opposite side of the globe to friends and family, I find the end of this book at once utopian and unusually satisfying. The snail can have her adventure, and her family, and her home, all at the same time. It is also the story of a community ready to change. Both The Snail and the Whale and The Secret of Black Rock animate the ways in which multispecies communities work together and travel together to create new stories of adventure, encounter, belonging, and hope.
The Snail and the Whale and The Secret of Black Rock are engaging representations of children’s agency because they are more than this—they entwine depictions of children’s agency with depictions of the agency of the natural world. The child characters act out of curiosity, wonder, and deep engagement, which enlivens both themselves and the adults around them. When we recognize the natural world as agentic and sentient, we are closer to perceiving our own place within it, and our dependence on it. These stories of agentic beings that are also homes help us realize this. Just as it is for the snail on the whale’s tail, and the fish thronging around Black Rock, our home is an enormous body making its way through a wide and wondrous world.
Multifaceted agencies converge in these texts. Animals, oceans, rocks, children, adults, narratives, rubbish, machines, and the real and the fantastic influence and are influenced by the other actors. The agencies of animals and rocks and children and adults work together to enable homes and communities to thrive. These communities are not closed off but are open to encounter and even to movement throughout the world. The creatures and humans “make kin” and “make homes” of one another. Songs are heard, trails are read, gazes are met, bodies are touched and carried, journeys are taken, homes are formed and saved. It could be argued that these hopeful fables of care and community are simplified and utopian. However, a complaint often made about environmental narratives is that by being too negative they destroy hope and can have the effect of prompting lethargy, not action. These stories envisage worlds in which the largest and smallest of beings are noticed and responded to with wonder, curiosity, and attention. Like Erin’s community and the flock of snails on the wet black rock, we would all do well to ensure that we are listening properly.
I would like to thank the anonymous reviewers and the editors for perceptive and constructive feedback.
Plumwood, Environmental Culture, 54. Plumwood cites Merchant’s concept of a “partnership ethic” as “the model that most consistently matched my intuitions about what has gone wrong and about how we might remedy it.” Plumwood, Environmental Culture, 11.
See also Goga, “Interspecies Encounters” for a discussion of interspecies ethics in a children’s book.
The image of an ecosystem built around a large creature has many real-life variants. While humpback whales do not carry sea snails, they are frequently encrusted with barnacles. One recently discovered ecosystem based on the body of a whale is one that emerges around a “whale fall”—when the bodies of dead whales sink to the bottom of the sea (Bastian, “Whale Falls”).
Duder, Margaret Mahy, pt. 3.