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Life in the Ocean: The Story of Oceanographer Sylvia Earle

life in the oceanSome of you who were here last year already know my deep love of Claire Nivola’s work.

This year, instead of personal memoir, Nivola returns to nonfiction, a biography of oceanographer Silvia Earle. I heard an NPR interview with Earle the very day I received a copy of this fascinating book. Let’s take a swim through it, shall we? On the title page, caught in a rectanglular frame, we see Sylvia, deep in the water, holding a seahorse the way a bird lover might hold a bluebird. The deep blue endpapers reflect on the white title page, creating a light blue feel. The edges of the frame belie the tape that once held the watercolor paper down, softening the edges a bit. (And, no, I am not going to wax poetic on every single page. But I do want you to see how slowly a committee member might observe every detail of every page.)

On the copyright page, a yellow and blue spotted something-or-other swims toward the dedication. The dedication (to Sylvia, her daughter and a professor) gives a little hint to the evaluator about the factual information that is to follow. (Sibert people are now waking up!) Since I mentioned Sibert, let me flip to the end, just to take a little look-see. The delicately-decorated author’s note explores more deeply the importance of the ocean and those critters swimming along the edges are now labeled. I now know that dedication page is decorated with a blue-spotted stingray! After all my whining about design last week, I am looking at backmatter that has been just as carefully conceived as the rest of the book. Even the bibliography lets us have one more image of Sylvia, this time feeding a dolphin.

Nivola’s use of color is what always strikes me. Sylvia starts out in green and brown New Jersey, where she explored pond life. A move to Florida means another shift in color, to the shallow greenish-blue shallow waters and moves to the aqua Pacific and and blues of the deep waters off the U.S. Virgin Islands. She also insists on showing Sylvia in perspective, allowing the young reader to really see how enormous  a humpback whale can be. Nivola’s gentle biography never bogs down in dull minutiae, but her detailed illustrations reward slow reading. A lovely variety of page designs play nicely here–I especially love the eight tiny rectangular paintings that show Sylvia in a plane, in diving gear, on a ship, in a lab, in an aqua suit and in two kinds of submersibles.  (And, just for the record, take a look at how those gutters match up on the first full spread!)

I have a boy in my class who loves the ocean and fish. He has noticed this book open by my computer and will be very happy to know he can borrow it.



Robin Smith About Robin Smith

Robin Smith is a second-grade teacher at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee. She is a reviewer for Kirkus and The Horn Book Magazine and has served on multiple award committees.



  1. Susan Dailey says:

    Thanks for sharing your insightful comments, especially how the committee looks at small details on the verso, author notes, etc. When I looked at this book, I wondered if it was an illustrated book instead of a picture book. Some of the pages definitely look like a picture book, but others have a lot of text. How do you think the Committee will look at this?

  2. I thought this one was lovely – your comments make me want to take a closer look at it! Orani made me a fan of Claire Nivola.

  3. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    Well, I think it is a picture book, though that is really in the eye of the committee.
    I don’t have here at home right now, but I know the story moves along at a nice pace and the illustrations create an essentially visual experience with or without text. I can’t remember if the illustrations extend the text, but they added a lot to my reading experience.

    Why do you think it’s an illustrated book (as opposed to a picture book), Susan?

  4. Susan Dailey says:

    I don’t necessarily think it is an illustrated book. I was hoping you had a magical “formula” for differentiating between picture books and illustrated books, e.g. if the double spread has more than 20 lines of text, it’s an illustrated book. It would make life so much simpler.

    My reaction relates to the layout of many of the pages. For example, the double spread with Sylvia in the Jim suit has a large block of text beside an illustration. This is the “look” I expect in an illustrated book, which is why I questioned it. However, I’ve heard illustrated books described as having scenes depicted in the text that aren’t shown in the illustrations. This particular page only describes one scene. (which I’d known if I’d read the text more carefully.) By that definition, this would be a picture book. If the double spread with all the small vignettes was one large block of text with only one illustration, this would make me lean more toward calling it an illustrated book.

    Before answering your question, I looked for a definition of a picture book and found an article that KT Horning had us read in the ALSC class about the Caldecott. (very informative class, by the way) The article was written in 1957 (!) and the author Esther Averill said:

    In an illustrated book the pictures are, as the term “illustrated” implies, a mere extension—an illumination—of the text. In a picture book, as the term also implies, the pictures play a livelier role, and are an integral part of the action of the book.

    She goes on to discuss Caldecott’s books as examples of picture books. Obviously, the discussion about the two types of books has gone on a long time and will no doubt continue.

  5. Robin Smith says:

    Thanks for that great quote from KT. I love her online class and would highly recommend it to any and all.

    What you wrote is EXACTLY the kind of conversation the committee will have…over and over.

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