cover image The Day the Whale Came

The Day the Whale Came

Eve Bunting. Harcourt Children's Books, $16 (32pp) ISBN 978-0-15-201456-8

The rotting carcass of a humpback whale is the unlikely focal point of this moralistic story set in the early 1900s. The likable narrator explains that an entrepreneur has rolled into his small Illinois town on a train, selling admission to a ""once-in-a-lifetime"" viewing (""for educational purposes"") of his freakish cargo: a smelly dead whale. Tommy, who has read ""a lot about humpbacks, is horrified when his bossy best friend reveals a penknife with which he intends to obtain a ""souvenir"" of the mammal, and foils the plan. When the train breaks down, Tommy helps the townsfolk bury the whale; later, he finds a new best friend (Tommy's mom says, ""Sticking up for something you believe in and sticking up for yourself are the same thing""). At spring's arrival the town receives an unexpected reward: a carpet of wildflowers in the shape of a whale blooms at the gravesite. The intriguing look at small-town America long ago gets flattened under Bunting's (Smoky Night) heavy-handed message. Debut illustrator Menchin's unconventional pictures, which are dominated by earth tones, subtly incorporate photographs with stylized drawings that take inventive liberties with perspective and scale. They show a sense of humor missing from the text, but they don't dispel the overwhelmingly somber mood. Ages 6-10. (Mar.)