April 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Going Deep: Author-artist Claire A. Nivola’s ‘Life in the Ocean’ tackles some urgent issues

Your gorgeous new picture book is about Sylvia Earle, an oceanographer and leading spokesperson on the importance of the ocean to our planet’s survival. She’s designed undersea research vessels and has spent more than 7,000 hours underwater. Have you ever gone scuba diving or snorkeling?

No, and while doing this book I was thinking, how can I do this book without snorkeling? I’d love to do it, boy. But I’m not a brave soul. I share Sylvia Earle’s love of nature and animals, but she’s amazingly brave, and I’m not.

What amazing things did you discover about the ocean?

I didn’t know anything. When I was working on this book, I was talking to my great-nephew, who was, I think, six or something at the time, and I said, “You won’t believe on the bottom of the ocean, there are these bioluminous creatures.” He just looked at me and said, “Yeah, we studied that in the second grade.”

Both this book and Planting the Trees of Kenya , your story of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Wangari Maathai, deal with remarkable women.

That’s probably coincidental. But what’s not a coincidence is that those two books are about the environment. My biggest concern is climate change. I’m sitting here [in Newton, MA] in the middle of January and it’s 50 degrees out there, and I’m thinking, Oh, my god, we’re already in it, and nobody’s talking about it.

Are you a maverick like some of the dynamic people you’ve written about?

[Laughs] Not in order to make a point, but I have no problems living the way I want to live. Just to give some background, my father was Sardinian and my mother was German Jewish. They came over here in 1939. My father was an artist, and they lived very differently than most of the people that I later went to school with, at an all-girl’s private school in New York called the Spence School. Nobody in my class had a home quite like ours or parents quite like mine.

How so?

When my parents first arrived, they had nothing. In the beginning, we lived on West 8th Street in a five-floor walk-up. It was basically a one-room apartment, and it had one little side room where my brother and I slept, and my parents slept in the main room. There was a closet-kitchenette thing with a half refrigerator, and they washed the dishes in the sink of the little teeny bathroom. But I loved my home. It had sunlight, and my parents painted the walls white, and they lived very simply, but beautifully—enjoying things.

How do you live now?

I’ve done the same thing. Here I am in this room with white walls and lots of artwork around me from my parents. This last year, my husband and I bought our first couch. We don’t have a car. We don’t have cell phones. I have no problem not following along with everything that everybody is doing. I want to live in touch with nature and the things that I care about—friends and people. I’m pretty mavericky about that.

What’s your book’s message for kids?

That we live on this Earth and we need to take care of it. I’m following what Sylvia does, which is to try to tell you how amazing the ocean is and how important it is to the life of the planet. How vast it is, and how beautiful and extraordinary its life forms are, so that you can be aware and concerned about it.

Rick Margolis About Rick Margolis

Rick Margolis was executive editor for SLJ.