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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Review of the Day: Tracking Trash – Flotsam, Jetsam, and the Science of Ocean Motion (Part One)

Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam, and the Science of Ocean Motion by Loree Griffin Burns.  Houghton Mifflin. $18.00.

I realize that I seem to be doing two Houghton Mifflin titles in a row on this blog.  Sorry about that.  Usually I like to shake things up a little.  Mix up my publishers.  No more free rides, HMCo!

Certain non-fiction series instill a sense of comfort in your average everyday children’s librarian. When you know you can count on something that’s consistently good, it really makes your collection development choices all the easier. Take as today’s example the Scientists in the Field series. The consistently award-winning titles they churn out cover a wide range of specialties. Until now, however, they’ve tended to be scientists that study living things. "The Bug Scientists". "The Tarantula Scientist." "The Woods Scientist." Even "Hidden Worlds: Looking Through a Scientist’s Microscope." So you can understand my initial confusion when I saw that the next scientist was far more interested in discarded shoes and random Legos than bugs or beasties. “Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam, and the Science of Ocean Motion,” examines the human effect on the environment and the ways in which our inadvertent littering have helped us understand things like ocean streams and currents.

It’s always wonderful when your hobby can be your job. Take the case of Mr. Curt Ebbesmeyer as your example. It used to be that Mr. Ebbesmeyer just determined the best locations for sewage outflow pipes. He’d help with oil tanker clean-ups too, but it wasn’t until 1990 that he found his true calling. When his mother pointed out to him an article about the recent landfall of hundreds of sneakers along the coast of Seattle, Ebbesmeyer was intrigued. How’d they get there? Where did they come from? And why were they landing where they were? Some preliminary digging led him to discover that a tanker had accidentally dropped its cargo container of sneakers into the sea during a particularly rough crossing. Yet it wasn’t until Ebbesmeyer realized that the sneakers could tell us how ocean currents flow that people began to take into account the importance of tracking where trash goes. In this way, author Loree Burns shows us other spills over the years and the ways in which scientists use the information. We hear about the computer modeling program OSCURS and its uses. We note the effect our dumping has had on some of the more fragile ocean environments. Finally, we see what the professionals are doing in an effort to clean up our seas and what we, as beachcombers, can do.

Visuals are always important in a non-fiction title with this kind of subject matter. In this way, the book does very well for itself. There’s a wonderful picture, for example, of a sneaker and a duckie floating in some water. This tank test shows just how much more buoyant the duck is, drilling home the idea of why it would travel faster on ocean currents than the tennies. Thanks to a veritable plethora of photographs, Burns’ title is consistently pleasing to the eye. Graphs and maps clarify some of the more technical aspects while other sections utilize subsections and small illustrations. The back of the book contains a Glossary, a list of recommended books for kids AS WELL AS “Web Sites to Explore” (so extra points there). There are additional Bibliographic Notes and an Index in the back.

What you have to consider with any complex children’s non-fiction title is audience. In short: Will kids pick up and read this book? This is easy enough to answer when it comes to something like fellow Scientists in the Field series title “Tarantula Scientist”. Big ugly spiders? Heck yeah they’re gonna pick that up! But young beachcombing enthusiasts are a rare breed of child. You could argue that this book appeals to more than the beachcombing set, of course. There are kids who are fascinated with the ocean. Kids that are worried about pollution of the seas. Etc. Again, though, they make up a small percentage of the overall American child population. There is no denying that “Tracking Track” is a special book. Probably one that will end up used as a homework text rather than pleasurable reading. This is a pity because there’s a lot of fun information in here. If I were to booktalk this to a group I’d definitely make a mention of the “ghost nets”. These tend to be huge abandoned nets that flow through the sea destroying coral reefs and trapping animals. Come on. How can you resist a term like “ghost nets”? Seriously!

I heard a criticism of this title from a fellow librarian that basically went, “I got bored reading this book. I didn’t get bored reading ‘Tarantula Scientist’.” Yeah. Well. Latitude and Longitude versus big hairy spiders? Not exactly a fair fight if you ask me. The thing is, Burns’ book really is fascinating, but there is a distinct danger of it losing its audience in the first half. The aforementioned librarian, after all, didn’t get far enough to hear about the ghost nets or the mysterious floating trash pile of the sea. If I had my druthers, I’d flip the first and second halves of this book. Lure the people in with the monster debris and pictures of barnacle-ridden nets. Then, once they’re hooked, slowly ease into the floating shoes and rubber duckies, ending with a quick encapsulation of tides and finally finishing with a look at Mr. Ebbesmeyer. It’s not the most linear way of tackling the subject, but at this point I worry that the early concentration on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the OSCURS modeling program is going to turn off potential readers a touch too soon.

(Continued in Part Two)

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. Thanks for blogging. I truly enjoy your posts.
    I find lately, though, that it’s a struggle to read all the way through a post. The large type, with lines so close together and no serifs, are work to read and my eyes get tired. Any chance you’d consider changing this?

  2. Fuse #8 says:

    Doggone it. No matter what I do, no one likes my font. I may just have to go back to Times New Roman. It may be small but at least you can blow up the size of the font on your computer. I’m thinking about going back.