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Otis and Will Discover the Deep

I remember my father’s story of when, as a teenager on Staten Island, he built a diving apparatus — a diving helmet — to enable him to descend into watery depths and explore the world below. My father is gone now and with him the details of how he created it — how air was tubed in, how far down he could go, even how successful it was. I wish I had listened better, asked more questions, remembered more. But what stays with me is his sense of adventure and curiosity, his urge to create a device and go exploring.

That is the adventurous spirit behind Barb Rosenstock and Katherine Roy’s Otis and Will Discover the Deep: The Record-Setting Dive of the Bathysphere, the tale of Otis Barton and Will Beebe, the first people to see what the deep ocean looked like. The book has a very cohesive overall design. The first thing readers will notice is the pleasing cover — the blue-gray background and the golden lettering, the curious ball of a machine called a Bathysphere with a single ray of light penetrating the dark, catching a squid in its beam. The back cover depicts a more technical scene of Otis and Will crammed inside the Bathysphere, Otis looking worried and Will enjoying the ocean’s pageant. They’re surrounded by sketches of cranes, oxygen tanks, portholes, and hatches. Front endpapers display the sea creatures Otis and Will encountered in the first 300 feet of their descent; back endpapers show the creatures in the 400- to 800-feet range. The animals are on a yellowish background, perhaps the yellowish beam of the searchlight. The title page looks like a family photo — two adults flanking their love child, the Bathysphere.

All of this beautiful bookmaking before the story even begins! The next pages follow the young Otis and Will. Like my father, Otis experimented with a homemade diving apparatus. Will was an explorer, hiking forests, tracking animals, and collecting various creatures. Roy’s lively, detailed illustrations — done in pencil, watercolor, gouache, and ink — always emphasize the human endeavor, and they are complemented perfectly by Rosenstock’s action verb–driven text. Rosenstock has been careful not to overexplain and to keep the amount of text in check. (A common mistake of many nonfiction picture books is that too much text makes for a challenging read-aloud. This volume worked wonderfully when I read it aloud to a class of first-graders.)

Will and Otis met up in Bermuda in 1930 to try out their Bathysphere, and Roy captures the claustrophobic feeling of two six-foot-tall men squeezed together in a 4.5-foot-wide sphere. The descent is a dramatic interplay of illustration and text:

“400 feet. Stop. / Colder. Breathe in. / 500 feet. Stop. / Darker. Breathe out.”

A large white font offers sound effects for the cable: CREAK, SKREAK, CREAK. A gorgeous gatefold portrays an otherworldly deep-ocean panorama, a riot of ghostly animals visited by a weird, glowing vessel from above.

Image and text also make clear the dangers behind the adventure. Otis and Will could suffocate, they could drown if a leak worsens, or they could “cook” if the sparking searchlight cord hits the oxygen tanks. But the voyage is a success, and “up, up into the light …” Otis and Will arrive back at the surface.

The back matter is especially effective and accessible to a young audience. In her illustrator’s note Roy explains the research it took to get the poses, gestures, and expressions right, since they are crucial to the story but not part of the historical record. She used fashion ads from old magazines for clothing ideas, and even made sure the blue dye color for Will’s sweater in a hiking scene actually existed in the 1920s. And, especially important, Rosenstock and Roy took great pains to get the sea creatures correct.

Otis and Will is a sure bet for Sibert consideration as a top nonfiction choice, but it certainly deserves serious Caldecott consideration for its stellar illustrations and the effective interplay of illustration and text. Otis and Will thought much about the deep ocean; I hope the Caldecott committee will think deeply about this book!

About Dean Schneider

Dean Schneider teaches seventh and eighth grades at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee.

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Comments

  1. Katherine Roy is an amazing talent. I believe she won her Sibert Honor for “Neighborhood Sharks”, though “How to Be an Elephant” was surely in strong contention as well. Both book received magisterial reviews in Calling Caldecott by Lolly Robinson. Along with Jason Chin and Molly Bang (and some others of course) she is a non-fiction illustrator extraordinaire and with this new release in collaboration with Barb Rosenstock she again has produced a first-rate picture book, revisiting the ocean deep. Dean, I was fascinated by your superlative analysis of the work’s bookmaking artistry, taking in the cover and end papers and alluring color scheme and your fantastic lead-in of your Dad’s Staten Island construction of a diving apparatus which really brings a level of authenticity to the review. I really loved the propulsive squid-populated gate-fold. Just a fantastic presentation which I am grateful for. There is no reason to think after “Grand Canyon”‘s surprise win last year that non-fiction won’t again be looked at closely by the committee.

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