Monday, August 20, 2012

Nonfiction Monday - World Without Fish

Last year I wrote a review of THE STORY OF SALT by Mark Kurlansky. I love Kurlansky's work in children's literature as he possesses great skill in making complex ideas accessible to kids. Heck, his work for adults is just as well-written, clearly conveying history and science in interesting and meaningful ways.

Unlike THE STORY OF SALT and THE COD'S TALE, which are nonfiction picture books aimed at ages 7-10, WORLD WITHOUT FISH weaves a graphic novel throughout the informational text and is geard towards older students, perhaps ages 10-16.

When I picked this book up last year I was looking for resources for teaching about food chains and food webs, but Kurlansky goes well beyond this in his determination to describe the causes and effects of overfishing on marine ecosystems.

In the Introduction Kurlansky writes, "Most stories about the destruction of the planet involve a villan with an evil plot. But this is the story of how the Earth could be destroyed by well-meaning people who fail to solve a problem simply because their calculations are wrong. Most of the fish we commonly eat, most of the fish we know, could be gone in the next fifty years."

Yeah, so this is not a happy story. It carries a heavy dose of doom and gloom, and while this is a scary message, it's one everyone needs to hear. I'll admit that I'm not usually keen on introductions, and this one is a crash course on Darwin, biological classification, the interconnectedness of things living and nonliving in the environment, and more. It does set the stage for the book, but it's a lot to take in at the beginning. The introduction ends with The Story of Kram and Aliat: Part 1, the graphic novel woven through the text. In fact, each chapter ends with a page of the story. These parts follow a young girl, Aliat, and her father, Kram, over a number of decades as the condition of the ocean grows increasingly bleak. Eventually it becomes an orange mess inhabited largely by leatherback turtles and jellyfish.

Following the Introduction there are these chapters:
  1. Being a Short Exposition About What Could Happen and How It Would Happen
  2. Being the True Story of How Humans Frist Began to Fish and How Fishing Became an Industry
  3. Being the Sad, Cautionary Tale of the Orange Roughy
  4. Being the Myth of Nature's Bounty and How Scientists Got It Wrong for Many Years
  5. Being a Concise History of the Politics of Fish
  6. Being an Examination of Why We Can't Simply Stop Fishing
  7. Being a Detailed Look at Four Possible Solutions and Why They Alone Won't Work
  8. The Best Solution to Overfishing: Sustainable Fishing
  9. How Pollution is Killing Fish, Too
  10. How Global Warming is Also Killing Fish
  11. Time to Wake Up and Smell the Fish
You'll also find a lengthy section of resources and an index, but surprisingly, you won't find any references. Now, Kurlansky did work at one time as a commercial fisherman and has written a number of books on the industry, so he does have firsthand knowledge of the topic. He also thanks a number of biologists in the Acknowledgements at the end of the book, so I know he's talked to the experts. However, given that this is not a nonfiction picture and is targeted to an older group of readers, I think references are a must. 

Now that you know what I perceive to be the main weakness of the book, let me talk for a minute about all Kurlansky and Frank Stockton, the illustrator, do well. First, the text is imminently readable. Kurlansky makes the science understandable, underscores the causes and effects of the problems with many meaningful examples, and uses an arsenal of writer's tools to make the reader want to press on despite the incredibly depressing content. Kurlansky is a terrific storyteller, seamlessly integrating history, science, and politics into a compelling narrative. The text is littered with photographs, illustrations, sidebar pieces, maps, and more. Graphic variations in the font, similar to "SHOUTY CAPITALS" in e-mail correspondence serve to highlight important ideas and keep readers involved with the text. They also serve as natural stopping places to reflect on the gravity of the situation. Every so often reader's run across a full-page illustration that highlights some bit of information on the opposing page. Like the endpapers of the book, they are beautifully rendered and dramatic. Sadly, there are too few for my liking. 

I learned a great many things while reading this book and was reminded of some other things I hadn't thought of for a while. Here are few points that stood out for me.
  • The jellyfish is actually a very highly evolved type of plankton. It is the cockroach of the sea, an animal little loved by human beings but particularly well designed for survival (p. 13). (For more on this check out Zooplanton at
  • Several times the size of the elephant, the humpback whale is one of the largest mammals on earth—and yet it feeds on one of the tiniest forms of life in the world (p. 42).
  • For thousands of years, fishing was sustainable. But nowadays, between 100 and 120 million tons of sea life are killed by fishing every year (p.85).
  • Fish prefer colder waters. The warming of the seas is a crisis for fish. If the seas are warming and ice is melting, this means that the melted ice, which is freshwater, will make the seas less salty (pp. 139-140).
As you can see, there is much to learn and ponder here. There is a ray of hope beginning on p. 149 when Kurlansky writes "What can we do about this?" The answer is, quite a bit! What we need to do is educate ourselves about all the ways we can help.

One more thing worth noting and something I appreciated was the inclusion of a quote from Darwin's ORIGIN OF THE SPECIES at the beginning of each chapter, each quote nicely aligned with the overall theme. These quotes give readers just one more thing to chew on. Perhaps some will even be inclined to pick up the book to learn more.

Overall, Kurlansky makes a powerful case here for not only the promise of sustainable fishing, but also its necessity for the health of our planet. RECOMMENDED.

Author:  Mark Kurlansky
Illustrator: Frank Stockton
Publisher: Workman Publishing Company
Publication Date: 2011
Pages: 192
Grades: 5-12
ISBN: 978-0761156079
Source of Book: Personal copy purchased at a local independent bookstore

This review was written for Nonfiction Monday. Head on over to Jean Little Library and check out all the great posts highlighting nonfiction this week.

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