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Indigo and the Whale

by Joyce Dunbar


Indigo and the Whale raises philosophical questions about tradition and animal welfare.

Indigo and the Whale follows a boy named Indigo who wants to be a musician. Indigo comes from a long line of fishermen, so his father disapproves and says that Indigo needs to be a fisherman like his father and grandfather. One day Indigo’s father gets sick so Indigo has to go fishing on his own to get food for his family. His pet crow gives him a rainbow pipe to go fishing with. When Indigo plays the pipe, he is able to charm a whale. The whale asks him to stop many times but Indigo refuses because his family needs to eat. Eventually, Indigo gets the whale to shore, but he notices that all the color in the world has begun to fade away. Seeing this, he destroys the pipe and lets the whale go. In the end, the crow gives Indigo a different pipe to play. His father hears the music and is instantly cured, finally accepting that his son was a musician after all.

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

The first set of questions challenges children to think about the value of tradition. Following tradition can have a lot of positive effects. For example, tradition creates a sense of meaning and belonging in our lives. Traditions often give us something to look forward to. This section also presents an opportunity to move beyond familial tradition and onto traditions in general and the question of when they should be followed.

Should Indigo have been a fisherman like his father wanted him to be, or should he have been a musician because that was what he was passionate about? The answer to this question relies on how important it is to follow tradition, whether that be in your family, with your friends, or in your community. Children can think about what makes it okay to go against traditions, if anything, and if some traditions are more important to follow than others. Many American children follow traditions like putting up a Christmas tree or having a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner, but they have probably never thought about why they do that every year or if it is actually important. They have also not likely thought about those kinds of traditions compared to traditions such as joining the same profession as past generations in their family.

Following in the footsteps of previous generations in your family and going into the same profession is also considered a tradition. Indigo’s father explains that he is a fisherman, his father was a fisherman, and his father’s father was a fisherman. He argues that Indigo also needs to be a fisherman. This profession means a lot to Indigo’s father, and it’s important to him that Indigo follows in his footsteps. It is easy to favor Indigo’s side of the argument, that he should be able to go into whatever profession he desires. However, it’s important to note that the fishing was important to not only Indigo’s family, but also the village on a whole. Without the family legacy of fishing, the village loses one of its main sources of food, and with it, one of the main traditions that established the family and the village as a whole.

This book raises many questions in regards to traditions expanding beyond annual holidays or group gatherings. Why is family tradition important, is it necessary, or is it better to live your own life and reach for your goals? There are certainly some traditions that are harder to follow than others. For example, it would have made Indigo very unhappy and would have been difficult for him if he had to follow in his father’s footsteps and be a fisherman because that would be infringing on his passions, however, it would be less difficult for him to follow a tradition of putting up a Christmas tree, even if he did not want to. Does a tradition being harder to follow justify breaking it? If following a tradition would potentially infringe on your well-being or mental health and hence be more difficult, that could be a reason to break tradition, even if it was something very important to your family?

Some things should not be justified just because they are a tradition, and this section presents an opportunity to explore that. This book also touches on issues of animal welfare. It brings up what we should consider when we need to hurt animals for our own survival and what instances would make it acceptable to hurt an animal. Indigo loves playing music, but this hurts the whale. This set of questions challenges the children to consider where the line should be drawn between hurting animals and our own self-interests. For example, what makes fishing for fish okay, but not fishing for the whale? Indigo’s family needed to eat, so what could they have done instead of killing the whale? This question brings up the idea of alternative diets such as vegetarianism and veganism. Indigo’s family could have found different food such as berries to make up for the lack of food from Indigo letting the whale free. Many of these children have probably not been exposed to the ethics of fishing and of eating animals, and this book does a good job of introducing those ideas.

Should we feel bad when we fish? Why did Indigo feel worse about hurting the whale than he did about fishing in general? This could be because the whale was so much larger than the fish he caught, or that there are so many fewer whales than the normal fish he catches. It could also be that the connection between humans and whales is just different than that of humans and animals. This could lead to a discussion about if some animals are more valuable than others and if so, what makes that the case.

Questions for Philosophical Discussion

Before Reading

  1. What is a tradition you have in your family?
  2. Have you ever broken a tradition?
  3. Are traditions good? Why?


  1. Did Indigo want to be a fisherman like his father? Why not?
  2. Why was Indigo’s father mad when Indigo told him that he wanted to be a musician?
  3. Was that right? Why or why not?
  4. Should Indigo have become a fisherman or a musician?
  5. Should Indigo have stuck with his family tradition or pursued what he wanted to do instead?
  6. Is it okay to break tradition?
  7. When would it be okay to go against tradition?
  8. Why might one not want to go against tradition?
  9. Are some traditions harder to follow than others? What makes this the case?
  10. Does a tradition being harder to follow justify breaking it?

Animal Welfare

  1. What happened when Indigo played his music to the whales?
  2. Should Indigo have stopped when the whale asked him to?
  3. Why did Indigo keep playing music until the whale was ashore?
  4. Indigo was hurting the whale, but his family needed food. Does the necessity of food justify Indigo’s actions? Is it never okay to harm the whale?
  5. What is better, killing fish by being a fisherman or by harming the whale to be a musician? Did the whale matter more than the fish? What makes the whale different?
  6. Is it okay to hurt an animal if your family needs food to eat? What if there are a lot of the specific animal (chicken, fish, etc)?
  7. When is it not okay to hurt an animal for food?
  8. In the end of the book, the whale was saved and music was created, but Indigo’s family did not have any food. Did Indigo do the right thing?

Wrap-Up Questions

  1. What is a tradition in your family that you think you will follow throughout your life?
  2. Have you ever done anything to help an animal? What did you do?

Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our Resources page.

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Back to All Books Cover illustration of Joyce Dunbar's book Indigo and the Whale featuring a young boy sitting on a boat playing music. The tail of a whale is sticking out of the water in front of the boat. Download & Print Email Book Module

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As one of the largest collegiate ethics institutes in the country, the Prindle Institute for Ethics’ uniquely robust national outreach mission serves DePauw students, faculty and staff; academics and scholars throughout the United States and in the international community; life-long learners; and the Greencastle community in a variety of ways. In 2019, the Prindle Institute partrnered with Thomas Wartenberg and became the digital home of his Teaching Children Philosophy discussion guides.

Further Resources

Some of the books on this site may contain characterizations or illustrations that are culturally insensitive or inaccurate. We encourage educators to visit the Association for Library Service to Children’s resource guide for talking to children about issues of race and culture in literature. They also have a guide for navigating tough conversations.  PBS Kids’ set of resources for talking to young children about race and racism might also be useful for educators.

Philosophy often deals with big questions like the existence of a higher power or death. Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our resources page.

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