Nonfiction Monday: Fish, Fowl, and Conservation

h1 May 12th, 2008 by jules

It’s Nonfiction Monday, and I’m here again with some new picture book titles (I promise to review a novel again one day very soon). These are both biographies (of sorts) that will particularly please those who like seeing eye-poppingly beautiful art in their picture books.

First is a new biography of the one and only Jacques Cousteau, Manfish, by Jennifer Berne and illustrated by French illustrator Eric Puybaret (Chronicle Books, April 2008). Berne sets out to tell us the life story of Cousteau—but only to some extent. Her bigger purpose is to convey his passion for conservation and teaching conservation to the world, particularly children. Berne opens it on quite the lyrical note:

Bubbles rising
Through the silence of the sea,
Silvery beads of breath
From a man
Deep, Deep down
In a strange and shimmering ocean land
Of swaying plants and fantastic sea creatures,
A manfish
Swimming, diving
Into the unknown,
Exploring underwater worlds no one has ever seen
.”

This is our opening spread, Puybaret showing us Coustea from behind in a stunning underwater world of aquamarine. “Our story starts many years before, in France with a little baby boy born under the summer sun,” the book continues. Jacques was a curious boy, interested in not only water, but also creating his own books, machines, blueprints, movies, and more. After joining the French Navy, he sailed the world and filmed what he saw: “In China, he filmed men catching fish with their bare hands. They held their breath underwater for many minutes. Jacques wondered what that would be like.” Berne captures the wonder of his first underwater trip with merely a pair of goggles a friend had given him and glass through which to look: “At that moment Jacques knew his life was changed forever. His eyes had been opened to the wonders of the sea.” After experimenting with diving and breathing underwater with his friends, Jacques—determined to become a “manfish”—stepped into the Mediterranean Sea one day with his new invention, the aqualung, and was then “ready to explore the oceans of the world.” In one wondrous vertical fold-out spread, Berne and Puybaret nail the beauty and mystery of the ocean and what Jacques and his friends discovered and finally captured on film.

Berne briefly touches upon what Jacques brought to viewers with his films but then closes the book by addressing the shock Cousteau felt over how humans were trashing the sea and the animals within it, thereby committing himself to conservation by talking to “presidents. To kings and queens. To people all over the earth. Asking them to help save our oceans, our planet. And he spoke to children.” On that note, Berne directly addresses the reader and how Jacques dreamt that someday it would be those children reading the book who would be exploring “worlds never seen, never imagined.” In her closing Author’s Note, her respect and admiration for Coustea is emphasized even further, telling us that Cousteau was a person whose “rallying cry wherever he went, whatever he was exploring, was ‘Il faut aller voir,’ which translates roughly as ‘We must go and see for ourselves.'” Berne’s ability to capture his spirit thusly is what makes this book satisfying on many levels: It goes without saying that those fascinated by ocean life will want to read this, but Berne makes it more than just a series of facts about one of the world’s most famous researchers. She humanizes him, making it so that curious young readers everywhere will be able to relate to his sense of adventure, no matter their particular passion.

Puybaret’s acrylic-on-linen illustrations are breathtaking in spots. He plays with perspective and fills every inch of every spread, bringing to vivid life the beautiful blue-green underwater world of the sea. Notice the very elongated Cousteau on the cover up there. Puybaret’s style is a distinctive one, indeed.

Note at the beginning of this post, I said parenthetically that these two picture books were biographies “of sorts.” That’s because you could argue this second title—Janet Schulman’s and Meilo So’s Pale Male: Citizen Hawk of New York City (Alfred A. Knopf, March 2008)—is a partial biography of New York City’s famous hawk; either way, it’s certainly nonfiction.

Now, there have been a handful of picture books of late about Pale Male, and—though I thought it’d be super keen of me to keep up with and blog about them all—I never quite did. But I’d have to agree with The Horn Book review that this is the best of them all. I have one word for you: Endpapers. Man, I wish I had them to show you here. They’re sublime: Pale Male’s auburn hawk feathers, all spread-out and larger-than-life atop a bit of blue sky. Gorgeous, I tell ya. Thank you, Meilo So, for that moment of beauty.

You all know the story of Pale Male, so I won’t summarize here, but know that Schulman does it up well. This text is a bit lengthy, delving into Pale Male’s pre-swanky-apartment-building life in Central Park and then giving readers details about the hawk’s life in the city and the events surrounding it. Like Berne, she addresses the larger issue of conservation:

They were true-blue New Yorkers—tough, resourceful, and determined to make it in the city. New Yorkers loved them for bringing a touch of the wild and a respect for nature to a teeming urban landscape.

Meilo So’s watercolors (with colored pencil used for moments of lovely detail) are luminous. You do not want to give these a cursory glance. She knows just what to blur and just which illustrations to give incredible detail with her colored pencil: the next-to-last spread is brilliant, I must say (as are several other spreads), showing the hawk, his mate, and other birds in a tree in Central Park. As Publishers Weekly wrote in their starred review (I think just about every review for this one has been decorated with such stars), “{b}y the final page, even readers who live far from Manhattan will appreciate that Pale Male’s significance and stature rise well beyond those of media darling.”

Here’s a spread from the book, the “dedicated birdwatchers” and protesters who came from across New York City to do their part to bring Pale Male’s nest back to its city home. Here’s the moment prior to that — when Pale Male became a New York celebrity after his nest was moved. I think it must surely hurt to have as much talent as Meilo So does.

As usual, Anastasia Suen is handling the Nonfiction Monday round-up at Picture Book of the Day. Until next week . . .

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11 comments to “Nonfiction Monday: Fish, Fowl, and Conservation”

  1. Wow, these are both winners with me. Manfish! What a great name for Jacques Cousteau! And double wows for Meilo So. I have a new and deep appreciation for watercolor — the vibrant wash of colors makes me itch to try it myself. It looks so simple — but there is so much detail and movement that it’s obvious that only a master could make it work. Gorgeous stuff! Happy week to you!


  2. […] 4. Literate Lives (A Home for Dixie) 5. Read. Imagine. Talk. (Things To Do On a Rainy Monday) 6. Jules, 7-Imp (Manfish and Pale Male) 7. Abby the Librarian (Deadly Invaders) 8. Lori Calabrese Writes (When Mr. Jefferson Came to […]


  3. Manfish comes just in time! My daughter wants to know about Cousteau because the topic came up after we met a friend’s cat by that name. Thank you.


  4. Alkelda-with-the-camera (yay!), you guys will love this one, I think.

    TadMack, yes, I love seeing watercolors done this well.


  5. Jules,

    MANFISH sounds like a fine biography of Cousteau. I love the opening lines of the book–an excellent way to draw readers in. It sounds like a book that would be great for reading aloud.


  6. Ooh – I’ve only seen Manfish online, but I so want to read it!!!


  7. OK. Those watercolors???? Too gorgeous for words…


  8. I used to love watching that documentary series Jacques Cousteau had on TV when I was little. Now that I know his real mission was to get people to care about the ocean enough to quit throwing crap in it, I love him even more.


  9. Eisha, I had to try really hard not to reference the old Dana Carvey Saturday Night Live skits where he impersonated Jacques Cousteau (or at least someone like him — this was a long time ago, so I don’t quite remember exactly). I just remember something about the “napkin feeeesh” and the word “peni.”

    But then I just referenced it after all, now didn’t I?


  10. Dude, I’d forgotten that one. Hee!


  11. I just reviewed this book and it blew me away. I review lots of biographies for readers of all ages and I must confess that this was one of the best. The artwork beautifully captured the water world that Jacques explored. I remember watching his films on the television when I was a kid.


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