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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Coral Reefs, written and illustrated by Jason Chin. Roaring Brook Press. 2011. $18.99 ages 5 and up

"Over hundreds of years, the coral piles up and spreads across the seafloor, eventually forming a living mountain called a coral reef. Corals may be small, but they are incredible builders. Coral reefs are the largest structures built by any animal on earth - the Belize barrier reef is over 180 miles long!"

What's that about the cover of a book being our invitation inside its pages? I would be very surprised if readers are not filled with questions when they see this young towheaded girl floating happily in ocean waters while a huge building graces the background? What is she doing? What is that building? Where is she? So much to talk about before even turning to the endpapers.

They too are filled with images to delight and inform. Black and white pencil drawings of many of the inhabitants of a coral reef are there, with labels and added details about size. Turn the page and we see the young miss taking a book from the appropriate section of the library shelves at the New York Public Library. Look closely at nearby book spines to prove that fact will see such titles as Caribbean Reefs, Shipwrecked, Coral of Australia. I think if you look closely, you might even recognize another of the library's patrons. I wonder if he still has a copy of Redwoods in his possession.

Only now do we begin to learn about the subject of this glorious new book from Jason Chin:

"For more than 400 million years, corals have been building reefs in the earth's oceans. Corals may look like plants, but they are actually animals. Some are soft and sway back and forth in the water, while others, called hard corals, are rigid. Corals are made up of polyps, and most have hundreds of tiny polyps on their surface."

And so begins our shared lesson. As the young girl reads, she becomes a part of the ocean that preserves the reefs. As she 'swims with the fishes' we keep the library in our sight and learn much about the relationships that sustain this beautiful habitat. There is learning to be done about the food chains, adaptations, survival, the protection that the reef provides, the food that is available to nourish its many inhabitants, and the role of lagoons in keeping the reef healthy. There is much to know about these amazing ocean environments:

"Coral reefs, on the other hand, are like oases in the desert. They are teeming with life and provide the feeding grounds for visitors. The largest fish in the world, the whale shark, visits the Belize barrier every spring to feed on the microscopic eggs of spawning reef fish."

As she nears the end of her reading, the city becomes more visible. When she finally lands on the library steps, wet and delighted with her adventure, she willingly shares her book with other interested children. You might recognize the young man.  There is so much to learn here, and isn't that the best way to pass on what interests you?

In the final pages, Jason Chin talks about the writing process that resulted in this most welcome addition to our nonfiction reading. He mentions the threats that the reefs face. As so often happens, once a child has read or shared a book that piques a new interest, we can only hope it will lead to other books and an expansion on the learning provided here.  

The beautiful full-color illustrations show the young explorer as she ventures forth on her journey, and they add immediate appeal. It is akin to being right with her as she swims with the fishes, and makes the many discoveries that Justin Chan has researched and then shares with  his readers. I will certainly keep my eyes open for his next book. If his first two are an indication of what he has in store for us for the future, we have much to anticipate.

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