A book was published in February of 1974 with one of the most haunting scenes I had (or have) every read. Serious consideration was given to not completing the story given the fear those descriptive moments created. As I recall the passage it spoke to those horrific, unforeseen minutes of fear which can happen, when something comes out of the dark to change our lives permanently.
Even knowing what was coursing through the water toward the nighttime swimmer, I was one of hundreds of viewers screaming and lifting my feet from the floor, as we watched Steven Spielberg's movie interpretation of Peter Benchley's Jaws in the summer of 1975. You don't forget that kind of terror. In her Author's Note Heather Lang talks about her fear of sharks sparked by the movie as a child but also how it drove her to learn as much as possible about a trailblazing woman. Swimming With Sharks: The Daring Discoveries of Eugenie Clark (Albert Whitman & Company, December 1, 2016) illustrated by Jordi Solano is one of those stunning picture book biographies highlighting an incredibly brave human being determined to disprove the status quo.
Little Genie stood on the railing and pressed her face against the mysterious glass tank.
While others feared what she watched, she found these fish fascinating. She dreamt of being in the water with them. She wanted to swim with sharks!
On Saturday mornings she returned to the aquarium in New York City, chatting with people who came to the tank and educating them about sharks. To support her passion her mother saved money to get her a fish tank of her own. This girl read, studied and asked questions about sharks. She was determined to become a fish scientist. Today this might not seem like an impossible dream but in the 1930s it was unheard of for a woman to follow this career path.
In college she took every class she could to work her way toward her goal, graduating with a degree in zoology. Fortunately a famous someone recognized her merits. Genie was a research assistant in California for an ichthyologist! She lived in the water acquainting herself with every aspect of life under the surface of the ocean.
When she was twenty-seven years old and conducting a study for the US Navy, her dream came true. Underwater collecting fish, a huge shark swam up behind her! As still as stone Genie watched it dive deep and away.
She built a laboratory in Florida complete with a shark pen devoting herself to learning as much as she could about these often misunderstood fish. Specific interactions would prove such things as sharks are clever, some are gentle and sharks are sophisticated. Eugenie Clark spent a lifetime (actually diving when in her nineties) devoted to sharks and their preservation along with all marine life.
When you read about a woman like Eugenie Clark brought to life by the writing of Heather Lang you are astonished at her accomplishments, one giant step at a time. Research and a visit with Eugenie Clark prior to her death in 2015 allow her to give us up-close-and-personal information about this remarkable pioneer in her field. Her depictions of these incidents are vivid enough to bring us into the place and time. The technique of including pieces of notebook paper with shark notes on them as part of the images brings us closer to her scientific revelations. Here is a passage.
The ocean became her classroom! Genie collected fish and studied them. She took water samples. She dissected a swell shark to investigate how and why it puffs up.
Wearing a face mask, Genie explored the underwater world for the first time. Its beauty mesmerized her. Genie couldn't wait to dive deeper, stay under water longer, and maybe even see some sharks.
Painted digitally after hand-drawn images are scanned into his computer Jordi Solano supplies readers with a world so real we expect the sharks to swim right off the pages. The illustration on the matching dust jacket and book case on the front, the right, is extended over the spine giving us an expanded view of the aquarium tank and a fourth shark. Even though Genie is on the outside looking in at the sharks, this initial picture seems to predict her astounding future with these creatures.
The opening and closing endpapers done in two hues of blue feature the outlines of many different types of sharks. Beneath the text on the title page a loose circle surrounds Genie with her hands pressed against the glass at the shark tank. Most of the images span two pages. Solano's use of shading and shadow and his shifts in perspective give each illustration a deep sense of atmosphere and emotion.
For the first two page image we again see Genie, face against the glass at the aquarium, but this time we are closer to her and seeing her as if we are in the tank; it's a shark's eye view. When Genie dives it's as if we are there with her. All the shimmering shades of the ocean depths are shown. Each picture is a study of Genie and her love of sharks.
One of my many favorite pictures is after Genie's mother buys her a fish tank. On a single page, taking up nearly the entire area, is the tank filled with plants and tiny fish. Behind them is the face of Genie, eyes wide open and watching everything in motion. Solano has her hair on the outside blend with the plants on the inside. The play of dark and light is wonderful.
After reading a title like Swimming With Sharks: The Daring Discoveries of Eugenie Clark written by Heather Lang with illustrations by Jordi Solano you find yourself first thankful for this woman and second hoping this story will inspire other women to pursue their heart's desire no matter what road blocks attempt to dissuade them. Eugenie Clark fought against norms and prejudice and won herself a place as a highly respected scientist. This is an excellent picture book biography! There is, as mentioned above, an Author's Note, a More about Sharks page and a list of Selected Sources.
To learn more about Heather Lang and Jordi Solano please visit their websites by following the links attached to their names. Heather Lang has a multitude of resources about Eugenie Clark and sharks on the page for this title. There is a six page teacher's guide. At the publisher's website you can get a peek inside the book including one of my favorite illustrations. At the publisher's blog illustrator Jordi Solano talks about his process for this title. This is his first picture book. Scholastic's Ambassador of School Libraries, John Schumacher, showcases the book trailer premiere with commentary by Heather Lang on his blog, Watch. Connect. Read. Heather Lang is a guest writer at the Nerdy Book Club speaking about research for nonfiction and fiction children's literature titles. This title has been nominated at the Amelia Bloomer Project.
As this year is nearly at a close please be sure to visit Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher to see the other titles selected this week by those participating in the 2016 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.