What do you want in a nonfiction picture book about an animal? I'll tell you what I want, and you see if that matches up.
- I want a story that will hook kids.
- I want photographs or realistic illustrations.
- I want any animal care professionals in the story depicted with rigor and respect, modeling correct postures and behavior for dealing with wild animals.
- I do not want the author to invent some internal malarkey for the animal. Not even, "Barty the tortoise was lonely." No. Unless it's a pet or some other long-observed individual (the chimps at Gombe for instance), humans may not presume to know the emotional life of an animal.
Astro the Steller sea lion is the first book from author Jeanne Walker Harvey, and it succeeds on all these points and more. Astro was an orphaned Steller sea lion found near San Francisco. Brought to the Marine Mammal Center, he was cared for until he could be reintroduced to the wild. Unfortunately, he had been brought into the company of humans at too young an age, and repeated attempts to reacclimate him to ocean life failed. At that point, Astro participated in a research study and was then transferred to the Mystic Aquarium.
It's a simple story, perfect for the picture book format. The reader learns something about Steller sea lions (named after my man Georg Steller, a naturalist/explorer from the bad old days when a zoologist's field notes might include the description "tastes great!"), but the real stars of this book are Astro's caretakers and trainers. Many of them volunteers, they are shown capturing, feeding, training, and transporting Astro. They use simple equipment, they mind their fingers, their eyes are on the animal at all times, they lift with their knees and not their back.
These routinized behaviors convey respect for the animal and indicate the expertise of the handlers. Any kid who pipes up with, "Veterinarian!" when asked what he wants to be when he grows up will admire this discipline.
Credit has to go to Shennen Bersani for these depictions. She traveled to each facility which had hosted Astro, and clearly took her time observing the personnel. I've admired Ms Bersani's realistic portrait-like illustrations of people before, notably in My Sister, Alicia May, but in this book she gets to demonstrate her talent for landscape as well.
An all-around winner, terrific for the classroom, with its photocopy-ready For Creative Minds activity and info pages in the back (also available on the Sylvan Dell website), but also a book for an individual animal lover to cherish.
California sea lions in La Jolla, seen on our recent trip to San Diego. California sea lions are smaller than Steller sea lions, but they are similar in color and shape.
And it's Nonfiction Monday! Hosted today at Wrapped in Foil, and, in honor of today's announcement of the Cybils winners (more on that later you can bet - I was a judge in the Graphic Novels category), many of the reviewed books (including this one, unbeknownst to me and in a happy coincidence) were Cybils nominees. Ok that was one of the worst sentences I've ever written. Forgive me!