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Saturday, April 21, 2012

Life in the Ocean, written and illustrated by Claire A. Nivola. Farrar Straus Giroux, Douglas & McIntyre. 2012. $19.95 ages 7 and up

"Little Sylvia would sit by herself - very still and for a very long time - waiting and watching to see what was going on in the pond, or under a fallen tree in the woods. Her mother called those outings "investigations." Sylvia described what she saw. The windowsills of the house were lined with her collection jars..."

If you have read this blog before, you might know that I have been collecting and talking about the many wonderful picture book biographies there are to entice young readers into learning more about people who make a difference in our world, and whose work is admired enough for someone to write about them. It often takes a lot of work and research to produce such a book.

In this picture book biography we  meet Sylvia Earle, who was a biologist and botanist before she realized what either word meant. She was born to be concerned about the world she lived in, and eventually about the ocean that was close to her Florida home. It was the move to Florida from New Jersey that changed Sylvia's life and gave her a new direction for her always active and inquisitive mind.

She began with swims near the surface of the Gulf of Mexico; as her need to know more grew, so did her bravery and her abiding interest in the life within the ocean:

"From the age of sixteen, when she swam thirty feet to the bottom of a river using diving gear for the first time - to scuba diving while researching algae for her university degree, to joining an expedition where she was the only woman among seventy men on a research ship in the Indian Ocean, to leading a team of divers stationed for two weeks in the deep-sea laboratory off the U. S.Virgin Islands, to walking on the ocean floor in an aqua suit that looked like a space suit, to descending 3,000 feet in the Pacific Ocean in a one-person spherical bubble she helped to design, to plunging 13,000 feet underwater in a Japanese submersible - Sylvia never stopped trying to dive deeper and see more."

Only 5% of the vast expanse that is ocean has been explored, and what Sylvia wants more than anything to come from her work is for people to make some of their own amazing discoveries by visiting the ocean ourselves. She believes that only in knowing its beauty will we care about what is happening to it.

This is a lovely and enlightening read aloud for all of us. I like the way that Claire Nivola presents what she has learned about this very special oceanographer in clear language, with details that help to understand her journey from farm girl to world renowned marine biologist. The illustrations are filled with the beauty that Sylvia describes in the ocean depths. The book's creator gives readers a sense of the vast expanse of blue that first attracted this dedicated woman to discover its many secrets.

An author's note following the text speaks clearly to the damage being done to the ocean daily and voices deep concern for its ability to sustain itself while being so neglected:

"Into our ocean, all around the world, we have dumped lethal nuclear waste, industrial waste, pollutants from underwater mining, and just plain garbage. We abandon sunken ships and allow our highways, farms, fields, and yards to leach fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals into freshwater systems leading to coastal waters and on to the sea at large. Are we thinking that the sea is vast and deep enough to take all this and more?"

Through knowing more and caring about such issues, we can learn to value what we take for granted. Will we be part of the problem, or part of the solution?

"You can't care if you don't know." - Sylvia Earle.

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