Closer Readings Commentary

“Amazing Whales!” A Read-Aloud Informational Text

Any fish can swim near the surface, but it takes a great whale to go down stairs five miles or more. —Herman Melville


"How big are whales? How do whales breathe? Do they live alone or in groups? Why are so many whales in danger?"* Learn the answers to all these questions and explore much more about the gentle giants of the sea.

Amazing Whales! is the third book in author Sarah Thomson’s I Can Read series, featuring full-color photographs from the Wildlife Conservation Society. Each book covers the habitat, characteristics, and behaviors of a different species of animal that shares our world. These introductions serve to spur the interest of young naturalists in the primary grades who are mastering reading skills.

The Common Core State Standards has identified Amazing Whales! as a Read-Aloud Informational Text exemplar for grades K–1.

About the Author

Sarah Thomson hails from the Midwestern cities of St. Louis, Missouri, and Madison, Wisconsin. An avid reader since girlhood, she states that she “grew up as much in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain, Charlotte Bronte’s stormy moors, and Jane Austen’s elegant drawing rooms, as the Midwest suburbs.”

Sarah attended Oberlin College in Ohio, where she majored in English and focused her studies on medieval literature. Upon graduation, she spent ten years in the publishing industry in New York City, rising to become a senior editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books. Her first book, The Dragon’s Son, emerged from her interests in the Middle Ages. After this book was published, Sarah moved to Portland, Maine, where she now concentrates full time on writing for children and young adults.

Sarah says she is “still living as much in books as in the real world. The only difference now is that some of the imaginary worlds I get to spend time in are my own.”


There are a handful of vocabulary words in Amazing Whales! that students may not know or understand in this context. It may be helpful to point out the following definitions as you read the text aloud, asking and answering questions as they arise. (A helpful point of reference for some of these terms may be the whale scenes from the feature film, Finding Nemo)

(Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.1.4: Ask and answer questions to help determine or clarify the meaning of words and phrases in a text.)

softball: a slightly larger size ball used to play a type of baseball—usually 12 inches in circumference

temperature: a measurement for telling how hot or cold air and water are

mammal: a warm blooded animal that drinks its mother’s milk.

whale calf: a baby whale

giant squid: a deep-sea squid that can grow up to 60 feet (18 meters)

baleen: a filter-feeder system inside the mouths of toothless, baleen whales

krill: small shrimplike creatures that live in the open seas and are eaten by a number of sea animals, notably the baleen whales

pod: a small, social group of whales

breaching: a motion in which a whale rises up and breaks through the surface of the water


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Read Aloud

You might preface the read aloud with a preliminary talk about whales in general and more specifically, the different types of whales you will be reading about in this text. You might share thoughts about the difficulties scientists have when studying whales. Explain to students because whales live most of their lives underwater, scientists must go out in boats equipped with technology to learn how whales live in the wild. Ask if anyone in class may have seen a whale in an aquarium or on a whale watch. Explain that whales are now protected by laws in many countries, but at one time, some types of whales were hunted almost to extinction.

The read-aloud is brief. As you read, pause to consider the ways whales are described in the book and pose the following questions as you cover these aspects of whales. (Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.1.2 Identify the main topic and retell key details of a text and CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.1.7 Use illustrations and details in a story to describe its characters, setting, or events.)


How does the size of different whales compare to items we know well?

  • Blue whale = a basketball court (94 feet)
  • Killer whales = an American fire truck (24 feet)
  • Dolphins and porpoises = a height shorter than many adults (5 feet)

Activity: Take students to the school gym to measure out the length of these whales. See if the entire class standing side by side can fit within the basketball court to imagine the size of the blue whale. (PBS Nature documentary series Ocean Giants has a comparison chart and fact sheet to help students picture the size and capacity of the different types of whales in the ocean.)


What kinds of things must whales do to live?

  • Because they are mammals, whales need to drink their mother’s milk and breathe air.
  • Whales use an opening at top their heads called a blow hole to breathe. This opening can be one or two holes and when air is blown out a cloud of white spray can be seen rising up in the air.
  • Many whales dive deep to hunt.
  • Some whales have teeth. Others don’t have any teeth and are called baleen whales.

Baleen whales eat “krill,” tiny animals related to shrimp.

  • Some whales live in groups called “pods.”
  • Whales breach or jump up out of the water occasionally. This may be a signal to other whales.
  • Whales make sounds. Some of their sounds seem to be “songs” that go on for a long time.

Activity: Play a series of whale songs from online resources such as those available through the Voices in the Sea; Ocean Mammal Institute; National Park Service; Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Bioacoustics Research Program. Consider the different types of sounds that come from different types of whales.


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What are some of the types of whales?  What are their special features?

  • Blue Whales: the largest animal in world; as baleen whales, they have no teeth to filter their food
  • Sperm Whales: have teeth to catch food; they dive deeper and hold breath longer than any other whale
  • Humpback Whales: breaching action may be a signal to other whales; male whales make noises over and over for hours that sound like a song; their numbers are growing
  • Killer Whales: hunt in groups for food; sometimes this type of whale hunts other whales; they live in a large, extended family or pod; makes noises that sound like squeaks

Activity: Laura Jernegan: Girl on a Whaleship, offers additional information in About Whales. See the “Whales & Marine Mammals” Resource Set from Mystic Seaport to learn more about special aspects each type. Use these online resources to make a detailed chart of the different features of each type of whale.

Whales and Humans

What problems do whales face from humans? How are humans trying to help?


  • In the past people hunted whales and reduced their numbers. Laws have been made in many countries to protect whales from being hunted.
  • Pollution in the oceans is destroying the whales’ swimming and feeding grounds.
  • Boats and fishermen can cause damage to whales by cutting them with propellers and getting them caught up in nets, so they may not be able to swim to the surface of the water to breathe.

Ways scientists are trying to study and save the whales:

  • Count and track how many there are and learn about their behaviors.
  • Follow them and record their movements and sounds.

Activity: Spend some time investigating ways scientists and conservationists in different countries are trying to help whales. (World Wildlife Fund’s Whale species is one of many resources to tap into for information on this topic. You might want to access NOAA to show how scientists were instrumental in changing the shipping lanes in Boston because they intersected with whale migration patterns.)

Follow-Up Activities

After completing the read-aloud, use the following video clips of rarely observed whale behavior to deepen students understanding of the whale. Try the follow up creative writing activities as a whole group to have students express their understanding of the whale.

This rarely seen example of interspecies play from the American Museum of Natural History was recorded off the Hawaiian Islands. It shows a humpback whale allowing a bottlenose dolphin to slide down its back, which the scientists interpret as non-threatening play.

Have students make up a group story about what is going on in this interaction.

  • Show this video of an encounter with a lone male sperm whale in the deep sea.

This whale was initially spotted on the water's surface from the deck of the E.V. Nautilus—the National Geographic research ship during a scientific expedition off the coast of Louisiana. Moments later, the same whale was nearly 2,000 feet (600 meters) deep under the Gulf of Mexico next to the small remotely operated vehicle connected to the ship while underwater.

Have students make up a group acrostic poem told from the whale’s perspective using the letters WHALE or SPERM WHALE. (Note: ReadWriteThink has an interactive tool, What is an Acrostic Poem? that may be helpful to students as they complete this activity.)

(Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.1.4: Describe people, places, things, and events with relevant details, expressing ideas and feelings clearly.)


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Related Read-Aloud Stories

Are your students asking for more stories about whales and other animals?

  • Lucky for them, Susan Thomson’s other books in her I Can Read series such as Amazing Tigers! and Amazing Gorillas! are readily available. Have students compare the descriptions of each type of animal from the “I Can Read” books to see if they can find ways they are similar and different.
  • Another nonfiction selection about whales is based on a factual event that made national news in October 1985. Humphrey the Lost Whale: A True Story Paperback (2014) by Wendy Tokuda and Richard Hall tells the story of a humpback whale who made a wrong turn in San Francisco Bay and found himself trapped in the Sacramento River. With the help of caring people, Humphrey finally made his way back to his salty ocean home.

Have students compare the way the two texts talk about whales using pictures, photos, and descriptions. Explain what is similar and what is different in the two accounts.

(Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.1.9 Identify basic similarities in and differences between two texts on the same topic (e.g., in illustrations, descriptions, or procedures.)


Kindergarten–Grade 1

Davidson, Margaret. Nine True Dolphin Stories. New York, NY: Scholastic Educational, 2004

Davies, Nicola. Big Blue Whale. Illus. Nick Maland. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2001

Donaldson, Julia. The Snail and the Whale. Illus. Axel Scheffler. New York: Puffin, 2006

Esbensen, Barbara Juster. Baby Whales Drink Milk. Illus. Lambert Davis. New York: HarperCollins, 1994

Evans, Fran. Little Whale’s Song. London: Piccadilly Press, 2003

Gibbons, Gail. Whales. New York: Holiday House, 1993

Hodge, Judith. Whales (Animals of the Ocean). Hauppage, NY: Barron’s, 1997

Kimmel, Eric A. Moby Dick: Chasing the Great White Whale. Illus. Andrew Glass. New York: Feiwel & Friends, 2012

Pfeffer, Wendy. What’s It Like to Be a Fish? Illus. Holly Keller. New York: HarperCollins, 1996

Roy, Ronald. A Thousand Pails of Water. Illus. Vo-Dinh Mai. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978

Rylant, Cynthia. The Whales. New York: Blue Sky Press, 1996

Simon, Seymour. Whales. New York: HarperCollins, 2006

Tokuda, Wendy, and Richard Hall. Humphrey the Lost Whale: A True Story. Albany, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 1992

Ward, Nathalie. Do Whales Ever…? Camden, ME: Down East Books, 1997

Worth, Bonnie. A Whale of a Tale! All About Porpoises, Dolphins, and Whales. Illus. Aristides Ruiz and Joe Mathieu. New York: Random House Children's Books, 2006

Grade 2 and up

Jernegan, Laura. A Whaling Captain’s Daughter: The Diary of Laura Jernegan, 1868-1871. Mankato, MN: Capstone Press, 2000

Kassirer, Sue. Thar She Blows: Whaling in the 1860s. Illus. Pat Fridell. Norwalk, CT: Trudy Corp., 1997

Kitteredge, Frances. Neeluk: An Eskimo Boy in the Days of Whaling Ships. Portland, OR: Alaska Northwest Books, 2001

McLimans, David. Gone Fishing: Ocean Life by the Numbers. New York: Walker and Co., 2008

Melville, Herman and W.T. Robinson. Moby Dick: The Great Classics for Children.

Illus. Jerry Dillingham. Franklin, TN: Dalmatian Press, 2009

Rivera, Raquel. Tuk and the Whale. Illus. Mary Jane Gerber. Toronto, ON: Groundwood Books, 2009

Roop, Peter, and Connie Roop. Goodbye for Today: The Diary of a Young Girl at Sea. New York: Aladdin Publishing, 2000

Sandler, Martin W. Trapped in Ice! An Amazing True Whaling Adventure. New York: Scholastic Nonfiction, 2006


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Related Online Resources

American Museum of Natural History

Laura Jernegan: Girl on a Whaleship


New Bedford Whaling Museum

Mystic Seaport

Sarah L. Thomson website

Wildlife Conservation Society


* Quoted from the inside cover of Amazing Whales!



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