November 17, 2017

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Down by the Sea | Factual & Fictional Selections for Young Readers

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Covering 71 percent of Earth’s surface, home to a vast array of plant and animal species, inherently mysterious and largely unexplored, the ocean makes a fascinating topic for motivating investigations and stimulating imaginations. The attractively illustrated nonfiction books featured here introduce basic characteristics of this watery biome, describe the wonders of diverse marine life, and highlight important conservation issues. Incorporating an array of creative approaches, the highlighted sea-themed tales and poetry collections encourage youngsters to interpret content and visual images, distinguish fact from fiction, and think about the concepts and creatures from fresh and mind-stretching perspectives.

The Big Picture

OceanandSeaFusing scintillating visuals with clearly presented information, Steve Parker’s Ocean and Sea (Scholastic, 2012; Gr 3-6) invites readers to plunge right into the topic. Well-written chapters, each prefaced by tantalizing questions (“What kind of forest grows 17 inches (45 cm) in one day?”), touch upon basic characteristics, Earth’s five oceans, marine life, sea-going humans (explorers, scientists, pirates, etc.), and threats to the environment. Throughout, an assortment of striking photos, helpful diagrams and charts, labelled maps, and colorful illustrations add to the factual content and aid understanding. For example, the Pacific Ring of Fire is vivified with a dramatic full-spread photo of fiery volcanic eruptions on the Hawaiian coast; a flow chart illustrates the Antarctic food web from sun-fed phytoplankton to hefty predators; and a cut-away rendering reveals the workings of a deep-diving submersible. An engaging overview of this briny realm.

abouthabitatsCathryn and John Sill’s simple text and handsome watercolors introduce the defining characteristics and intriguing inhabitants of Oceans (Peachtree, 2012; PreS-Gr 3). A lovely choice for sharing out loud, the book conveys information while also initiating discussion. In one instance, the statement, “Ocean water is always moving,” is accompanied by an illustration of short-beaked common dolphins gliding across deep-sea waves, encouraging children to postulate about one type of motion; another spread spotlights several critters—a Portuguese man-of-war, giant octopus, striped remora and blacktip reef shark, Fiordland penguin, and spiny lobster—to demonstrate their many different methods of locomotion and underscore marine biodiversity. Species and locales are always identified, and an afterword offers additional facts to expand the content.

amazinggiantseacreaturesSeven Amazing Giant Sea Creatures (DK, 2014; K-Gr 5) leap, drift, and swim off of the heavy-weight pages in DK’s eye-grabbing offering. Presenting quick descriptive overviews and stats, each abundantly illustrated entry folds out (twice!) to present a three-page image of the featured species—a bottlenose dolphin and baby vault above the water, a lion’s mane jellyfish trails willowy tentacles, whiskered walruses repose on Arctic ice. Whether zooming in on a whale shark’s dot-and-stripe markings (which provide camouflage in dappled waters) or emphasizing the shape of a sperm whale’s tail (used to make noise by slapping surface), the images enhance comprehension.

Francesco Pittau and Bernadette Gervais’s generously sized The Open Ocean (Chronicle, 2014; K-Gr 5) also employs an interactive format to introduce marine life. Readers lift flaps embellished with silhouettes to discover delicate full-color renderings of a compass jellyfish, skate, or swordfish (and a few facts); peek inside a nautilus or razor clam; behold patterned close-ups of animal exteriors and speculate about their owners; and manipulate multiple panels to assemble complete critters. This cleverly designed book challenges kids to observe carefully, utilize visual evidence to make conjectures, and think outside of the box.

coralreefsSeymour Simon takes youngsters beneath the ocean’s waves to explore Coral Reefs (Harper, 2013; Gr 2-5), a beautiful and bustling environment “…second only to a rainforest in the huge numbers of plants and animals that live there.” Illustrated with crystalline undersea photographs, the narrative discusses how these sea animals form and develop into colonies, identifies different types of corals and coral reefs, and describes some of the amazingly diverse creatures that live in and around these important habitats. Words and images work together to create an understanding of and appreciation for a unique biome and its importance to Earth’s ecology.
Go Deeper
aliendeepDuring a 1977 expedition to the Pacific’s Galápagos Rift, scientists first detected deep-sea hydrothermal vents (ocean floor fissures that spout geothermally heated water) and the astounding creatures that dwell nearby in extreme conditions previously thought unlivable. Illustrated with full-color photos, Bradley Hague’s Alien Deep (National Geographic, 2012; Gr 4-8) chronicles a 2011 expedition to the same location. Explanations of scientific concepts are woven into a narrative that also incorporates the needle-in-a-haystack challenges of deep-sea exploration, the collaborative nature of scientific research, and the thrill of discovery.

Readers are swept into the adventure as ROVs (Remotely Operated Vehicles) Little Hercules and Seirios descend 8,400 feet to transmit otherworldly images of two-foot-tall crimson tubeworms, dinner-plate-size clamshells, and other denizens of a fully functioning vent biosphere. Ambitiously tackling topics that range from plate tectonics to chemosynthesis, this book offers impetus for more advanced readers and thinkers to stretch their mental muscles. Expand their experience with a visit the National Geographic website for related videos.

oceanphoticularShowcasing stunning photographic images that ripple with movement, Dan Kainen’s Ocean: A Photicular Book (Workman, Sept. 2014; Gr 5 Up) fully immerses readers in a captivating underwater realm. From a yellow-banded sweetlips to a deep sea anglerfish, eight sea creatures are depicted in vivacious 3-D lenticular-style illustrations that seem to sway, pulse, and paddle. Author Carol Kaufmann introduces each animal with tidbits about physical characteristics, behavior, and conservation. Delightful and engrossing, the text sparkles with evocative details, effervescent descriptions, and eyewitness immediacy (Kaufmann scuba-dived and descended via submersible to visit with her subjects). Though best suited to more confident readers, the expressive writing and irresistible images make this book a splendid choice for sharing aloud with younger students.

Ocean-Themed Picture Books

Ranging from poems to true tales to wordless adventures, these picture books encourage kids to apply their knowledge of marine environments and species by analyzing narrative accounts, making comparisons between true fact and story, and thinking beyond the constraints of traditional nonfiction. Students can discuss the many different ways in which authors and illustrators choose to present their material, and make comparisons between two or more titles. Are the characters’ depictions and actions based on fact? Which true-to-life physical and behavioral aspects do the writers choose to emphasize? What impact do these works have on readers?

intheseaEloquent poems and magnificent woodblock-printed paintings provide a show-stopping look at life In the Sea (Candlewick, 2012; Gr 1-5). Featured on dazzling double-pages are a sea horse “dainty as a wish;” a dolphin that twirls and spins above the waves like “an acrobat with fins;” a poised-for-action moray eel (“Ferocious. Cunning./Belligerent. Brave./A sword without its sheath,/a dragon in its cave”); and more. Brimming with breathtaking metaphors, David Elliott’s succinct verses also convey details about the featured species, while Holly Meade depicts the critters with an enchanting blend of realism and whimsy.

Kate Coombs’s Water Sings Blue (Chronicle, 2012; K-Gr 4) presents 23 poems that evoke the mysteries of the ocean. Illustrated with Meilo So’s lushly hued watercolors, the offerings conjure the language of waves (“Shimmer and run, catch the sun./Ripple thin, catch the wind.”); articulate the predatory power of a shark (“He slides through the water/like a rumor, like a sneer./He’s a quick twist of hunger./He’s the color of fear.”); or imagine a tide-pool shopping trip to purchase everything Mama likes (“blennies for pennies,/beadlet anemones,/and urchins with lavender spikes”). Both books make winsome choices for sharing aloud, launching research projects about the subject matter, and inspiring creative writing and/or artistic ventures.

elizabethIn a charmer of a picture book, Lynne Cox and Brian Floca tell the based-on-true-events story of Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas (Schwartz & Wade, 2014; K-Gr 4), an elephant seal who forsook the usual habitat of her ocean-dwelling kin and took up life in the city. Often spotted stretched out on the sun-warmed streets of Christchurch, New Zealand, or swimming in the “sweet, shallow waters” of the nearby Avon River, the regal eight-foot-long mammal was named after the Queen of England by admiring townsfolk. After a car accident was narrowly avoided, well-meaning individuals made several attempts to relocate Elizabeth to far-away beaches populated by others of her kind, but the seal repeatedly returned to her chosen home, much to the joy of the people of Christchurch, including a boy named Michael.

Beautifully detailed illustrations and understated narrative mix fact with a dash of wonder as Elizabeth remains unshakably loyal to her preferred locale and wins the warmhearted admiration of her fellow (human) citizens. Facts about elephant seals and a photo of Elizabeth are appended.

Tbreathewo whale tales provide opportunity for comparison. In Gianna Marino’s radiantly illustrated work, a young humpback embarks on his first-ever migration to the summer feeding grounds, peppering Papa with questions along the way (“How will we know which way to go?”). As they journey, Little Blue dives deep to explore the wonders of the “magical world” below, and suddenly finds himself alone in cold and dark waters. Remembering his father’s advice, he pauses to listen carefully, and once again finds his way by Following Papa’s Song (Viking, 2014; K-Gr 4). This lyrical tale of burgeoning independence and affectionate parental reassurance is illustrated with mixed-media artwork that shimmers with variegated hues and gently eddying textures. Underscoring a similar theme, Scott Magoon’s story features a beluga pair, as a loving mother encourages her young one to venture forth and explore their surroundings—swimming far, diving deep, making new friends, facing fears, and always remembering to take the time to Breathe (Paula Wiseman/S & S, 2014; K-Gr 4). Crisp digital artwork delineates the sweet-faced characters and shivery Arctic setting.

outoftheblueKids can make visual observations, verbalize a logical sequence of events, and allow their imaginations to run wild by concocting their own narratives for two wordless adventures. Alison Jay’s distinctive crackle-varnish-finished oil paintings show two young beachcombers collecting treasures and then scurrying indoors as a storm rolls in. Morning light reveals the arrival of something entirely Out of the Blue (Barefoot, 2014; K-Gr 4)—a giant octopus washed up on shore, legs tangled in a fishing net. When the creature unexpectedly opens a sky-blue eye, everyone runs away; but the two youngsters quickly summon their courage and compassion, carefully cut away the netting, and initiate a group effort to return to the octopus to the sea.

jimcuriousReaders must be outfitted with 3-D glasses (two sets are included) and a true spirit of adventure to peruse Matthias Picard’s Jim Curious (Abrams, 2014; Gr 1-5). The eponymous boy—wearing a bulky old-fashioned dive suit—climbs off a pier and descends into a mysterious and dark domain filled with swirling sea creatures (including a rather startling pop-off-the-page shark), long-forgotten shipwrecks, majestic ruins, and an ocean-floor surprise that literally turns his world upside down. Expertly utilizing 3-D effects, the black-and-white scratchboard-style illustrations abound with precise renderings and intricately layered depths, deftly balancing realistic detail with breathless fantasy.

Taken individually or grouped together, these titles can be used to incorporate numerous Common Core Standards, including the following: explain the major differences between books that tell stories and books that give information (RL 1.5); compare and contrast the most important points presented by two texts on the same topic (RI 2.9); and determine the main ideas and supporting details of a text read aloud or information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally (SL 3.2).

Curriculum Connections

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Joy Fleishhacker About Joy Fleishhacker

Joy Fleishhacker is a librarian, former SLJ staffer, and freelance editor and writer who works at the Pikes Peak Library District in southern Colorado.

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