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Vol 1, Issue #3
"Stand By For Mars!"
March 2006

Children's Fiction Book Reviews
by Kathy Thomason

The Great Whale of Kansas
by Richard Jennings
Houghton Mifflin/Walter Lorraine Books

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Melville, Kansas is a sleepy little town in the middle of the United States where nothing exciting ever happens, until one day, a young boy, old before his time, begins to dig in his backyard. Born late in life to older parents, people said that he was 11 going on forty, a quiet, introspective boy who was very precise in all his actions. He had decided that for his 11th birthday he wanted to have a great achievement. And what is a greater achievement than a great hole in the ground, and so he asked for a pond-building kit and a shovel. The kit came with an instructional video that he watched over and over, waiting for spring so that he could get started digging his pond.

Being a very precise and meticulous young man, when spring came, he went out to backyard with spray paint and drew shapes and ovals on the grass until he had outlined the pond just like he wanted it to be. He then gathered stones and rocks for the pond's edge and he was finally ready to start digging. He eagerly headed to the back yard and began to dig. He was thinking that he would be basking in the tranquility of his pond in no time at all when reality, in the form of a sudden rain that Kansas is so famous for, came and stopped the digging for three weekends.

But when he resumes digging, his shovel hits something he thinks at first is rock, which is common in Kansas, but he soon realizes that he has hit a fossil. A very large fossil, he is excited when he realizes that he isn't sure what the fossil is. He keeps digging but, unknown to him, his dad calls the state and asks the state foremost expert in fossils to come take a look. The expert looks at it and dismisses it, stating that it is a very common fossil in Kansas. Even though everyone else takes her at her word and goes away, he keeps digging and finally gets enough uncovered to realize that there is not just one but two fossils, with one being inside the other.

He begins to draw out what he sees, showing it to his science teacher and his friend, an Indian who runs a bookstore. They decide it looks like a whale with another animal inside and are very excited. Once again though, his dad decides that this is too much work for a young boy and calls the state, who realizes that part of the fossil is on city property and set ups a dig site to try to uncover the head. But when they get it all uncovered and realize that it is a whale, the state fossil expert declares it a fraud, stating that the boy must have faked it, never mind that he is only 11 and the fossil is massive. But even though they decide it is a fake, the state decides it would be a great centerpiece for an amusement park.

The boy, his friends and family band together to protect the whale from outsiders who wish to exploit it and eventually make a very interesting decision on the fate of the whale. For any youngster who has ever dreamed of finding a previously undiscovered fossil in their backyard, this is the book for them.

Richard Jennings is a native of Tennessee and was educated at Rhodes College, where he won first place in the Southern Literary Festival. He is the former editor of Kansas City Magazine and co-founder of a popular bookstore in the Kansas City area. His previous books include the critically acclaimed Orwell's Luck. He lives with his family in Overland Park, Kansas.

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