I find Kurlansky’s books fascinating. The most widely read nonfiction authors nowadays, and the ones I tend to like best, have largely abandoned the lecturing style that characterized nonfiction for so long. I love Norman Cantor’s The Civilization of the Middle Ages and Thomas Pakenham’s The Scramble for Africa, but the way they're written, those books could be textbooks (and frequently are). Norm was a wonderfully old-school lecturer in Medieval History at NYU, and I imagine Pakenham had a similar job at a similarly august university.
(Wow, I am so wrong about Pakenham. Guy is an EARL, and his sister is Lady Antonia Fraser, who just wrote that gorgeous book about her marriage to Pinter. I'll bet dinner conversation in that castle is pretty great.)
Anyway. Kurlansky, like Michael Pollan and Alan Weisman, has a story to tell in each of his books, but instead of decanting the story straight onto the page, his narratives are written in an investigation format. It’s an organizational technique borrowed from true crime, or perhaps thesis writing. Either way, it draws the reader in as a participant – “Where’s he going to go next?” “What’s he going to find out?” In the case of Weisman's The World Without Us, the question most on my mind was, “How’d he score a trip to see the North Pacific Gyre?”
Participant nonfiction like this is great for kids. The Scientists in the Field series and other books of that ilk honor their kid readers by inviting them along to witness the work. And many schools have put the kid versions of Three Cups of Tea and The Omnivore's Dilemma on their summer reading lists. But depending on the kid, I’ll often suggest they read the original versions of these adult books. They have a more peer-to-peer tone.
Which is what I immediately notice in this Kurlansky book. There is an immediate, distinct - and overt – acknowledgment that the author is an adult and his readers are children. In his introduction, Kurlansky explains the immense opportunity and responsibility that ‘you’ have: “In the next fifty years, much of your working life, there will be as much change in less than half the time. The future of the world, perhaps even the survival of the planet, will depend on how well these changes are handled.” He then gives a brief lecture on evolutionary biology, summarizing some of Charles Darwin’s contributions and explaining that all life is interconnected.
Ouch. This is not news to most kids - I know three-year-olds who can sing a song about the web of life. In any case, it’s certainly not news to the kind of kid who has picked up this book. And there’s no quicker way to turn off a kid like that than to try to tell him something he already knows.
Luckily, we back off on both the prescriptive language and the didacticism once we get past the Introduction. Whew! Why do people write Introductions? At least in kids’ nonfiction, they should be put at the end of the book.
The book’s about fishing, and fish populations, and how the one impacts the other, and the evolution of our knowledge about that impact, and how to continue doing the one without completely destroying the other. That’s interesting stuff. It involves biology, economics, geopolitics, and technology, and Mark Kurlansky understands those things well enough to explain them to anyone.
I think it is less of a challenge than people think to translate systemic phenomena to children. Certainly kids are no less receptive to information like this as adults are. They are, after all, more proximal to the background knowledge one needs in order to digest concepts with such far-flung causes and far-reaching effects – grade school being the last place most adults took a biology or history class.
What am I saying? I’m saying that while World Without Fish is a terrific work of nonfiction for kids – interesting and well-written (and I’ll get to the art in a minute, the art is great) – in places, I wish Mark Kurlansky had not been so conscious that he is addressing The Younger Generation. A former commercial fisherman and avid amateur one, Kurlansky is at his best when he is telling stories.
And they're great stories. We learn about herring fishing in the Middle Ages, the Cod Wars (Actual wars! Over cod! And one of the combatants was Iceland! Is everything about Iceland unexpected?), and the fascinating and tragic story of the orange roughy. Turns out, orange roughy live about 150 years and grow very slowly – so that lovely filet that you consumed with a white wine beurre blanc in 1997 was possibly older than you were. In just a couple decades of fishing, the orange roughy became one of the world’s most threatened fish, its population unlikely to rebound in the foreseeable future.
Now to the art. Frank Stockton is an illustrator-illustrator (as opposed to a comic book artist, though he's made comic books; a children’s book illustrator, though this is a book for children; or a fine artist, although I challenge anybody to call this work un-fine) whose work usually appears in grownup publications like The New Yorker and The New York Times. I like this choice. The infrequent full-page illustrations are beautiful and dramatic and are keyed to the text, but they have that ineffable editorial quality of being lifted from a narrative of their own. A school of jellyfish drift past, all graceful tentacles and mucus-slick domes, but this is a school of jellyfish that is coming from somewhere and is on its aimless way to somewhere else.
Stockton has also contributed the art for an 11-page graphic novel about an environmental advocate, Kram, and his daughter Ailat, who over the course of decades are witness to the progressive destruction of marine populations and the ocean itself. Nowhere is this book more heavy-handed – bordering on hysterical – but Frank Stockton’s art is clear and expressive, with a balanced, readable page layout and a harmonious color palette.
World Without Fish is in the running for a spot on my mental Ten Best list for children’s nonfiction this year for its intelligent unraveling of the causes and effects of overfishing on marine ecosystems. I hope that Mark Kurlansky writes more books for kids – his storytelling, investigative style is a natural for talking to kids, and I think he’s going to quickly get a feel for just how much he can expect them to understand… which is a lot.
Nonfiction Monday is hosted today at The Cat and the Fiddle.