What does it take to suck a kid into a book of nonfiction? You can't use a drag net, or barbed hooks. Robotic arms cannot scoop a child into a lucite barrel, and very few children old enough to read are small enough to pick up with two fingers and stuff into a test tube.
But those are just a few of the methods that scientists use to collect marine specimens for study. Rebecca Johnson tagged along with the Census of Marine Life on several collection expeditions and had a chance to observe firsthand all the going and the getting and the looking and the recording. She does an amazing job describing the research activities - clearly, economically, accurately, using sensory details to extend the you-are-there impression that begins with her use of second person narration.
And the spectacular photos of fantastic-looking creatures that accompany these descriptions - those are the seine nets, the robotic arms, the probing fingers that snag the kid reader.
Transparent, shimmering comb jellies. Intricate shrimp. Bone-white or rainbow-colored deep-sea lobsters. And even more unlikely items - the bone-eating zombie worm; a fish with a transparent head, so it can see out the top; tiny pink centipedey-looking worms that eat frozen methane.
For years I have been surreptitiously sliding copies of Claire Nouvian's gorgeous oversize book of deep sea creatures, The Deep: The Extraordinary Creatures of the Abyss, into the hands of children. Ditto Norbert Wu's mindblowing Under Antarctic Ice. That Norbert Wu, he is one crazy fellow. Kids, there is no drysuit warm enough to do sub-ice dives, no matter how cool the brittle stars are on the Antarctic ocean floor.
I like showing kids the pictures of fleshy transparent jellyfish and plumed tubeworms. Hmm, that sounds a little pervy, doesn't it? Well, to me, after dozens of books about charismatic megafauna, lions and dolphins and the like, there is something sensuous and rare about the silent, dark lives of ocean animals.
Everything about this book is designed to evoke the mystery and allure of the depths. The pages shade from dark blue to black. The text of captions and sidebars glows green. Sharp, colorful short statements from ocean researchers show up in red, like the dashboard lights on a submersible.
Along with the design, I also feel compelled to praise this book's organization: the first chapter is about tide pools, and each subsequent chapter goes deeper into the ocean. A good-sized graphic locates the depth and location of each investigation.
Johnson has elicited great little quotes from these scientists: never preachy or teachy, they express what fascinates each about their area of study. Dr. Pedro Martinez Arbizu says, "When it comes to animals smaller than a centimeter, there's about a 50/50 chance that something we collect in the deep sea will turn out to be a new species."
The text is also almost entirely devoid of agenda, devoting itself to description and experience. An epilogue addresses global warming, habitat destruction, and the need to protect the oceans. The book would be remiss if it did not mention these issues, but I think it is wise to hold that discussion until the end, when the reader has become informed enough to understand the ramifications for marine life.
Plenty of further resources are offered, including links to marvelous websites and primary sources. Each scientist gets a postage-stamp-sized photo and an institutional address. Putting a face to a name is so important to kids.
I can't think of a better way to reel a kid into an obsession with marine life, especially any kid who has read the sparkling Dark Life by Kat Falls. Rich, relevant, interdisciplinary, brainy and tactile at the same time - you can say that about the area of study and about this book.
Nonfiction Monday is hosted today at Chapter Book of the Day.