“This is the tale of a tiny snail,
and a great big, grey-blue, humpback whale.”
Julia Donaldson claims this as the favourite of her books and it is no surprise. This charming and original tale tells the story of a tiny sea-snail with an ‘itchy foot’ who longs to go travelling. Befriended by a whale, the two unlikely companions travel the vast oceans of the world past “shimmering ice and coral caves / And shooting stars and enormous waves.” The snail is humbled by the magnitude of the world.
“She gazed at the sky, the sea, the land,
The waves and the caves and the golden sand
She gazed and gazed, amazed by it all,
And she said to the whale, “I feel so small.”
When the enormous whale gets into trouble, however, the apparently insignificant snail is the only one who can help.
The stanza above, with its simple structure and delicate internal rhyme, exemplifies Donaldson at her best. This book is exquisitely written. From evocative images of the “stripy fish with feathery fins and sharks with hideous toothy grins” to the quiet fear of “this is the tide, slipping away / And this is the whale, lying beached in a bay” each moment is beautifully pitched.
Thematically too the story is a gem. The wanderlust-infected snail is warned by her compatriots to “be quiet, don’t wriggle, sit still, stay put” but is unwilling to accept her lot in life. Faced with the breadth of the wide world she has a crisis of confidence, but despite her tiny size it is she who is able to save the whale. What better message to give to a child than that what they do matters, no matter how small they are, and that the big wide world is out there waiting for them.
The Snail and The Whale is a modern classic. Easily enjoyed by little ones for the exciting story and the colour of the illustrations, there is a lot to discuss with older children.
(PS: You may also enjoy Julia Donaldson’s poem about writing it… See her Day in My Life poem, here.)