Saturday, February 13, 2021

Q&A with Jennifer O'Connell


Jennifer O'Connell is the author and illustrator of the children's picture book The Eye of the Whale, which focuses on the rescue of a humpback whale. O'Connell lives in Bethesda, Maryland.


Q: How did you learn about the story you tell in The Eye of the Whale?


A: My uncle emailed me an article from the San Francisco Chronicle about the amazing humpback whale rescue. He knew I loved whales, having previously illustrated a book titled A Garden of Whales (by Maggie Davis).


The description of the event gave me goose bumps and changed the way I view whales. The humpback’s actions after she was rescued reflected high intelligence and emotional capability. I couldn’t stop thinking about the story, and started working on a picture book about the rescue.


Q: What kind of research did you do to write the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I read many articles about the event, but the best research was an in-person interview of the main diver, James Moskito, in San Francisco. He is a shark diver by profession, and gave me a minute-by-minute account of what happened, with details that were helpful, including that the whale’s eye was the size of a large grapefruit!


I had brought modeling clay and string to the interview so James could make me a small model of the whale, wrapping string around it to show me how it was trapped. This helped when I was creating the illustrations, since there were no underwater photos taken.


I also motored out into the Pacific Ocean on the rescue boat, Superfish, with Captain Mick Menigoz, who told me additional details of the story from a boat captain’s perspective.


Through my research I learned that scientists have discovered spindle cells in large whales’ brains. Before this discovery, they thought that only humans, great apes and elephants had these cells, which indicate self-awareness and emotional capability.


Q: Did you work on the text first or the illustrations--or both simultaneously?


A: I began with writing the text, draft after draft. Realizing that I was stuck, I created a storyboard with spreads of rough sketches outlining the whole book. This helped me to plan the story in a picture book format of 32 pages. I created a “dummy” of the book, and once I knew what would happen on each spread visually, the words gradually evolved.


Q: What do you hope kids take away from the story?


A: I hope that everyone who reads the story will gain a new understanding of whales as intelligent, feeling beings. We owe it to them to protect these gentle giants from human and environmental harm so that we can continue to learn about them and from them!


Maybe some readers will be inspired to do this as their life’s work, or find other meaningful ways to help and protect these co-inhabitants on this planet.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working on a picture book about African elephants, and am in awe of their intelligence, sensitivity, instincts and emotional capabilities.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I love to write fictional, made-up stories, but I am also captivated by true animal stories, particularly about interspecies communication. Truth can be just as amazing and exciting as fiction!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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