Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Prized Ocean Abodes

There was once a man, a great uncle, with a gift for working with wood.  Everything he made was refined, smooth as silk and any seams were nearly invisible.  He crafted a set of stackable tray display cases from rich, burnished wood.  They were for a little girl, a girl who loved seashells.

She lined those cases with black velvet to focus attention on the varied textures and colors of the seashells.  Each seashell was carefully labeled.  The girl, until she was in college, only visited the seashore once, but family and friends knew of her collection, bringing her treasures from their trips.  Seashells More Than a Home (Charlesbridge, April 2, 2019) written by Melissa Stewart with illustrations by Sarah S. Brannen is the second collaboration by this outstanding duo.  (Their first, Feathers Not Just For Flying, is the recipient of multiple awards.) This book, like those seashells saved by that girl, is a compilation of wondrous information and watercolor paintings guaranteed to have all readers walking along the seashore with new eyes.

Every day, seashells wash up on beaches all over Earth, like treasures from a secret world beneath the waves.

Their shapes, sizes and colors are varied, a reflection of their functions for the beings dwelling inside them.  There is a shell so marvelously formed it can act like a submarine.  It holds gas in tiny compartments which helps it float.  Water, stored in front of those sections, assists it in sinking.  This is a Chambered Nautilus.

There are shells unlike the nautilus hugging the sand bottom for weeks.  Others act like carpenter tools pulling apart other shells for food like a crowbar or boring into the ocean floor to escape hungry enemies like a drill bit.  Did you know there are scallops that glide and dip like a butterfly?  When escaping predators its valves move it along the bottom or through the water.

There is a mollusk with a shell containing plates.  Just like the land animal, an armadillo, it can roll into a ball for safety.  Some seashells are nearly transparent to allow sunshine to grow algae inside it for food.  Others have only small holes acting like vents to rid the animal's waste. (Now you know why there are holes on an abalone.)

Do you need a disguise?  Do you need to know how to perfect the art of camouflage?  Observe the habits of a thorny oyster shell or a flat periwinkle.  Mussels open and close their shells with ease whether in safety or trouble.  If you happen to be the tasty treat a tulip snail favors seek shelter.  They crash and crack.  Regardless of all the other benefits of seashells, they are first and foremost prized ocean abodes.

Author scientist Melissa Stewart delivers a carefully researched narrative using alliteration, distinctive verbs and similes in her conversational writing.  Her curious mind anticipates our questions and she supplies us with answers.  Readers are fully engaged in the comparisons to objects, animals or people with which they are familiar.

Seven sentences reflect those contrasts between the seashells and those objects, animals or people they resemble.  They refer to movement, stability, protection and acquiring food.  Here is a passage.

Seashells can wear disguises like a spy . . .

The spines on a thorny oyster's shell are the
perfect home for sponges, algae, and other
small creatures.  As these hitchhikers grow on
the outer surface of the oyster, they hide its
shell from hungry hunters.

When you open the matching dust jacket and book case, a row of shells extends from either side of the spine.  On each side they are placed in order, largest to smallest in size moving from the spine.  The turquoise of the water gently lapping the shore and the darker shade in the title text provides a pleasing balance with the sand.  The sand is a natural and excellent canvas to emphasize the seashells.  It's as if we've been transported to a beach and are ready to stroll among nature's riches.

In shades of brown and white with a title of

Mollusk habitats
and ranges . . . 

each featured seashell is placed in thirteen rectangles on the opening and closing endpapers; six on the first and seven on the second set.  The shell and its geographical location (map) are shown.  They are labeled with the common and scientific names and habitat descriptions.  Beneath the text on the title page an array of seashells is shown in sand.

Sarah S. Brannen created these illustrations using

watercolor on Arches 300 lb. bright white cold press paper. 

She begins with a two-page pictures of five children walking along the beach, sketch pads and pencils in hand.  Two are seated or kneeling busily drawing seashells.  (She also closes the book with these five children leaving the seashore, carrying their drawings.  Shells are scattered in the sand and a sandcastle stands as a testament to further creativity.)  The images for each shell may cover two pages or a single page.  Usually an open sketch pad showcases special points about a particular seashell.  These are set within a larger visual.

Each illustration incorporates the object, animal or person which is being compared to the seashell.  A submarine glides in the water as a chambered nautilus moves.  Through an open window a ship's smokestack releases smoke as an abalone expels waste in a smaller image.  The placement of every element in each picture is as if we are turning the pages in an explorer's journal; we move from panoramic scenes to photographs or to sketch pad pictures.  The details are exquisitely realistic.

One of my many favorite illustrations extends over two pages.  The background picture is a sandy shore with a home and dock in the distance.  Palm trees shade the property.  In the foreground a father and daughter are hard at work repairing and replacing the boards on a small, overturned wooden boat.  The father is using a crowbar to remove planks.  The girl is using a drill bit to make holes in the new wood.  On the left side a lightning whelk is prying open a shell to eat.  On the right side an angelwing clam is burrowing into the sand to stay safe.  On the sketch pad is an angelwing clam showcasing the ridges on its shell used for going deeper into the ocean floor.

This book, Seashells More Than a Home written by Melissa Stewart with illustrations by Sarah S. Brannen, is like finding a gift left by the ocean on the sand.  It is brimming with fascinating information and elevated with illuminating paintings.  At the close of the book both Melissa Stewart and Sarah S. Brannen offer readers notes on their process.  There is also two pages dedicated to the kinds of seashells; bivalves, cephalopods, chitons, gastropods and scaphopods.  At the conclusion are sources to Continue Your Exploration, Selected Sources, Author and Selected Sources, Illustrator.  I highly recommend this title for your personal and professional collections.

To learn more about Melissa Stewart and Sarah S. Brannen, please visit their websites by following the links attached to their names.  Melissa Stewart has accounts on Facebook, Pinterest and TwitterMelissa's blog is an amazing resource.  Sarah S. Brannen has accounts on Instagram and Twitter.  The cover for this title is revealed at educator Alyson Beecher's Kid Lit Frenzy.  The book trailer is premiered at Scholastic's Ambassador of School Libraries John Schumacher's Watch. Connect. Read.  Both Melissa and Sarah are interviewed.  You can view interior images at Charlesbridge and Penguin Random House Canada.

Be sure to stop by Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher to discover the titles selected this week by other participants in the 2019 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.


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