Detailing a whale’s intergalactic journey alongside an astronaut he befriends, “The Astronaut’s Whale” is a children’s book based on a poem by Fountain Valley High School English teacher Joseph Barro.
It’s a heartwarming tale about what so many of us go through at a point or in multiple sections of our lives: the quest to find where you really belong in the world.
When Barro had first written the story, he had no idea of what was to come. He’d written the piece as an unplanned outlet for the anxiety and excitement of becoming a first-time father, combining his lifelong love of the sea and interest in space with the reasoning of “what kid doesn’t like whales and astronauts?”
Upon writing the poem, Barro hadn’t given it much thought, adding it to his website anescapetoholdonto.com where he posts a repertoire of his literary and musical pieces. The piece recaptured his attention when he had woken up one morning in January 2016 to the poem having gained massive traction as part of a fan theory on K-POP group EXO’s music video “Sing For You.”
Barro mentioned he was surprised to see the poem go viral.
“Since then, the poem receives at least 20-30 views a day from around the world. I’ve had people reach out to me to do translations, and even a group from Mexico asking if they could have permission to make the poem into a theatrical performance,” Barro said. “At this point, I thought, ‘wow, this is crazy! How great would it be to make this poem into a real book with illustrations!’ And after kicking the idea around with Mrs. Barro, I thought I would make that a goal. That’s when Mrs. Barro saw Vian doodling in her biology notebook.”
Vian Nguyen, then a senior at FVHS, eventually joined the project and brought the poem to life through her illustrations. Her artistic skills had been recognized by FVHS biology teacher Emily Barro, his wife.
Barro and Nguyen started developing ideas together and got serious about the book, which would be both of their first endeavors into publishing, around 2018. The project initially faced problems with Nguyen’s drawing software that was unequipped for an efficient illustrative process at the time.
The two made progress on “The Astronaut’s Whale” and approached a figurative light at the end of the tunnel. In the summer of 2020, Nguyen’s illustrations were finalized and hard-copies were readied for distribution.
Both remember obtaining the physical book — the product of all their hard work and creative collaboration — as a highlight of the process.
Nguyen recalls how it felt like the book had added a bright light to her high school experience and life.
“When I would pass by Mr. Barro’s room, I felt like we were on a mission; we were on a project and we were going to make something cool at the end of it,” Nguyen said. “When my mom saw [the book], she was so happy and, at that moment, she was like, ‘You need to pursue art from now on if that’s what you want to do. Don’t care about getting a job that people think is professional or the right type of job. Just do what you love and keep doing this.’”
Nguyen advises readers to focus on the way the dialogue and images intertwine.
“[W]ith this book and the way we created it, we can see two separate creative minds working,” Nguyen said. “Mr. Barro’s story and his words will create almost like a different angle to the story and the illustrations create [another] different angle. They work together but they also work very beautifully on their own.”