When Sylvia Earle was 3 years old, her parents bought a farm in rural New Jersey. Little Sylvia began what her mother called her “investigations” — sitting for hours by a pond or in the woods, observing life, and scribbling in a notebook. She collected jars of tadpoles, salamanders, and plants and kept them on all the windowsills of the house. She became “a biologist and a botanist long before she even knew what those words meant.”
When she turned 12, her family moved to Clearwater, Fla., and there, close by the Gulf of Mexico, she “lost her heart to the water.” Sylvia began new “investigations,” this time equipped with swimming goggles. By the age of 16, she had swum 30 feet to the bottom of a river using diving gear. Such adventures merely fueled the curiosity and passion of the budding oceanographer.
Through Claire A. Nivola’s biography “Life in the Ocean: The Story of Oceanographer Sylvia Earle,’’ young people can draw close to young Sylvia’s underwater “investigations” and learn about the other experiences that helped shape this extraordinary scientist.
Nothing has ever stopped Sylvia’s fascination with the rich life she finds in the ocean. She was the only woman among 70 men on a research ship in the Indian Ocean; she descended 3,000 feet in the Pacific inside a spherical bubble she helped to design, and walked the ocean floor. Perhaps most thrilling of all, she once spent two weeks 50 feet below water at a deep-sea station. “I’m changed forever because I lived underwater for two weeks in 1970. I wish that everybody could go live underwater if only for a day.”
Not everyone can, but many of us have the chance to draw close to what Sylvia has called “the blue heart of the planet” when we visit the seaside. Every spoonful of ocean water, Sylvia reminds us, is “brimming with extraordinary forms of life.” Her work has in many ways continued the trajectory of legendary ecologist Rachel Carson.
Nivola captures the essence of her subject, as she did in her award-winning “Planting The Trees of Kenya,’’ about Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai. Her writing is evocative, bright and clear, and her illustrations are equally beautiful — painted in soft foliage greens for rural New Jersey, and in inky blues illuminating Earle’s beloved underwater world. As biography, nature writing, and picture book, “Life in the Ocean’’ is a nearly perfect book.
Chloe was the young bunny love interest of Peter McCarty’s marvelous “Henry in Love,’’ a New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book. She reappears at the center of things in his new offering, “Chloe’’ — literally at the center, since she has 10 older brothers and sisters and 10 younger brothers and sisters. Chloe loves being in the middle, smack dab in the center of what she thinks of as “family fun time.”
So when Chloe’s father comes home one night with a television set for the family to crowd around all the bunnies love the new toy except for Chloe and baby Bridget. Together they win their siblings over with bubble wrap and an empty box, which are, after all, a lot more fun than the latest TV show. “’I wish we could pop bubbles and smash boxes every night,’” says one brother, and at the book’s end we see the father furtively popping bubbles by the window.
McCarty keeps his prose simple and pure, a style that suits his artwork. There is always plenty of open space in McCarty’s books — skies stretch on forever and white pages frame close-ups of faces. There’s also an engaging, slant quality to his perspective. People and objects tend to tilt, as if caught somewhere between falling and flying. In “Chloe,’’ McCarty captures the charm of a large squashed-together family, just in time for summer reunions.
And because summer also brings its share of rainy days, “It’s Raining, It’s Pouring,’’ gives life anew to the 1961 Peter, Paul and Mary song (from which it takes its name) thanks to illustrations by Parisian artist, Christine Davenier. Every schoolchild is familiar with the words to this nursery rhyme-based song, “It’s raining, it’s pouring, the old man is snoring.” But Davenier creates her own visual background story to explain exactly how the old man bumped his head, went to bed, and couldn’t get up to play with all of his grandchildren — at least not right away. Her art is airy and bright, colorful and liquid, with apple reds, cool blues, and lime greens.
Best of all, “It’s Raining, It’s Pouring,’’ comes with a CD of Peter, Paul, and Mary singing their famous song, along with two others, “Make Believe Town,” and “Glory of Love.” That makes this the perfect book-and-CD package to take on a long trip to the beach, or to listen to inside on the inevitable rainy day. Both book and CD are wonderful enough to survive every season; like the song itself, they seem destined to become children’s classics.
LIFE IN THE OCEAN: The Story of Oceanographer Sylvia Earle
By Claire A. Nivola
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 32 pp., ages 4 and up, $17.99
By Peter McCarty
Baltzer and Bray, 40 pp., ages 2 and up, $16.99
IT’S RAINING, IT’S POURING
Performed by Peter, Paul, and Mary
Illustrated by Christine Davenier
Charlesbridge, 26 pp., all ages, $17.95