Quote of the Month

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

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Every Link In The Chain Of Life Has Value

Summer after summer for more than two decades, their playful antics were a gift.  They moved from the river to the shore with lightning speed and agility.  Occasionally the dock provided them a resting place.  Sometimes the remains of their snacks were seen on the nearby grass.  Their place in the ecology of the northern Michigan river world was and is invaluable in the system of environmental checks and balances.

They are among a multitude of living beings whose purpose is not initially known.  Fortunately for readers, there are authors and illustrators who seek to inform us of the essential part we all play in the preservation of our planet and its inhabitants.  If You Take Away the Otter (Candlewick Press, May 26, 2020) written by Susannah Buhrman-Deever with illustrations by Matthew Trueman is a story of destruction and restoration.  It is a reminder of what cannot be ignored.

On the Pacific coast of North America, where the ocean meets the shore, there are forests that have no trees.

These forests are not on land.

We need to venture to the shores and open water of our oceans to see these forests.  They are composed of kelp, a form of algae or seaweed.  Kelp is large.  It, like its counterparts on land, is home to all types of sea creatures and plants, tiny and big.  Some of them live near the bottom, along the holdfasts, or at the top among the swaying blades of kelp, looking like leaves.

Kelp forests supply larger animals of the sea and air with their meals.  The best hunter here is the sea otter.  To survive they eat food equal to at least a quarter of their own weight each day.  Today there is a balance in the kelp forest between consumers and consumed, but not too long ago disaster was barely averted.

Indigenous Peoples lived and live in harmony with sea otters, only taking what is needed.  Others arrived in the middle 1700s and nearly hunted the sea otters to extinction.

Where once there were 150,000 to 300,000 sea otters, by 1911, only 1,000 to 2,000 survived.

With the diminished sea otter population, the urchins they ate, multiplied and multiplied and multiplied.  These urchins ate and ate and ate the holdfasts of the kelp.  The kelp fell like harvested timber, changing the entire habitat.  It was a classic domino effect happening under the sea.

As sea otters were harder to locate, governments (the United States, Russia, Japan, and Great Britain) agreed to a treaty.  This is what saved sea otters and the kelp forests.  This is what helped to initiate a slow growing ebb and flow of give and take.

Each carefully written sentence based on meticulous research by Susannah Buhrman-Deever takes us to a world beneath the waters of the oceans.  Her words visualize and inform, employing a technique to expand readership.  The larger, almost lyrical narrative provides an overview and is supported by expanded details in smaller print.  This presentation supplies an easy and pleasing rhythm.  Here is a passage with one of its additional statements shown in finer, smaller font.

Abalones and clams, sea stars and octopuses, feathery sea worms and swarms of tiny swimming shrimps live in these forests.  Crabs scuttle and snails slink up and down the kelp blades.  Spiny sea urchins creep about on tiny tube feet.

Thousands of tiny creatures can be found on and around a single kelp.

It literally takes your breath away.  It is as if you are underwater swimming toward the two sea otters featured on the open and matching dust jacket and book case.  The textures and hues of blue and green with white and purple are luminous in their portrayal of these two underwater marvels.  Their bodies and the complete scene extend on the other side of the spine, to the left on the back.  There a single kelp with its holdfasts sways in the current.  The air bubbles from the sea otters on the front are varnished.

The soft purple shade on the front of the jacket and case for the urchins covers the opening and closing endpapers.  Although opaque, it looks like watercolor spread across both pages on the front and back.  It continues the sense of being under the sea.  On the initial title page strings of seaweed stretch through the water.  On the double-page picture for the formal title page to the left of the words, we dive into the water through more threads of algae where the younger of the two otters swims.  Some of the threads are tinged in a near-gold color.

Using mixed media illustrator Matthew Trueman makes eloquent, nearly photographic double-page visuals.  We are under the sea gaining a closer perspective of the kelp forests and their inhabitants.  Some elements are closer to us than others, but in nearly all the pictures it is an intimate encounter.  It is like we can hear the water and waves, smell the salty air, and see what the sea otters see.

One of my many, many favorite illustrations is just below the surface of the water.  The top of the water curves along the top, left to right with a seabird skimming the surface.  Close to us on the left is kelp and strands of seaweed.  Swimming toward us is a sea otter whose body curves to the right crossing the gutter and extending nearly to the right edge.  It is a magnificent depiction in the turquoise water, bubbles rising up and to the right.

This book, If You Take Away the Otter written by Susannah Buhrman-Deever with illustrations by Matthew Trueman, is a stellar addition to necessary nonfiction picture books educating readers about the worth of each living thing necessary to maintaining our planet.  At the close of the book is a discussion about Kelp Forests, Sea Otters, and People.  There are Acknowledgements to those who reviewed the text for accuracy.  There is a Selected Bibliography and books and websites under For more information about sea otters and kelp forests.  I know readers will be amazed as much as I was about importance of sea otters.  They are still classified as endangered. I highly recommend this title for your personal and professional collections.

To learn more about Susannah Buhrman-Deever and her other work, please follow the link attached to her name to access her website.  At the publisher's website you can view an interior image.  At Penguin Random House, you can see the title pages and the first double-page picture.

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