First things first. Let’s just get something out the way here before I go any further. I am not exactly a disinterested party when it comes to this book. No, I don’t know the author personally (though we did meet once). No, I never saw an early manuscript or offered helpful criticisms when the text was still young and unformed. No, I am not a coral reef myself. See, the thing about this book is that it takes place at a very specific location. The bulk of the story happens when a kid enters a library. And not just any library. My library. And by “my” I don’t mean my local branch. I mean my employer. So you see, I’m not sure I can be trusted to review this with an impassive eye. There’s something that makes a gal go all giddy when a book features her place of work. Never mind that Chin has already established himself as a master of the magical realism nonfiction form (see: Redwoods) or that the book covers material rarely presented in such an imaginative fashion. Nonfiction books for kids are usually such dull, dry affairs. Clearly an author has to get a little bit wet sometimes to make them interesting. And compromised though I might be, I’m recommending this puppy with all my heart.
A girl stands in a library room and removes a book from a shelf entitled Coral Reefs. As she reads we see the text below each image. The book explains how reefs are formed, who lives in them, and what their future may be. As we read along we see the girl’s library suddenly flooded. New York City is now underwater and the girl observes firsthand the lagoons, the feeding grounds, and the food chain at work. By the end she stands on the library steps utterly wet, and some other kids get to read the book world beneath the sea for themselves. The back of the book features an author’s note on the threats the coral reefs now face as well as additional facts and a small bibliography of useful books and websites.
The Stephen A. Schwarzman branch of New York Public Library (better known to the bulk of the world as “the library with the big stone lions out front”) has appeared in various works of children’s literature for years. From a significant appearance on the dedication page of James Daugherty’s Andy and the Lion to the The Inside-Outside Book of Libraries (by former NYPL employee Julie Cummins, no less) to Hilary and the Lions by Frank Desaix, there is no end to the number of titles that have displayed it in some way. Of course, only a few of those books actually give glimpses of the inside of the library itself. This book not only glimpses the inside, it fills it with saltwater. I expect a lot of kids are going to find our rooms a bit disappointing after they go on the oceanic journey of Coral Reefs first.
Naturally Chin spoke about this book in my library not that long ago to two classes of second and third graders. Lest you believe kids of that age range cannot take interest in anything that doesn’t involve princesses or Star Wars characters, allow me to say that the children who saw the man speak took in, processed, and retained the information here. After reading the book and explaining how he wrote it he asked the kids what it is that parrotfish eat. When he called on a girl with her hand in the air she said, with no hesitation, “Polyps.” I exchanged glances with the grown-ups seated around me. Heck, I couldn’t have told him that and I’d been listening the whole time. Kids: 1. Grown-up librarians: Zip Zero Zilch. Now I should note that the text in this book is very straightforward. The girl’s journey doesn’t enter into it. Chin is telling you about coral reefs straight on without prettying it up or doing much more than giving you the facts of the matter. Be aware.
When a kid gets an assignment in school to do a report on coral reefs, they’re going to go to their local library looking for one of those perfectly nice but relatively dull books with lots of information and the occasional photograph of an octopus or a grouper. Chin’s idea to couple his facts with a kid exploring them firsthand was one he used to great effect in the previous book Redwoods. Like this book, that one showed a kid reading a book in a New York City (in that case, on a subway), emerging from the station into a world of enormous trees. Here our heroine is in NYPL’s Rose Reading Room (meticulously and accurately rendered) when she is swept into an underwater world. For the images Chin uses the most delicate of watercolors. He’s a master of them too. It can be no easy task to show what the underside of the ocean looking up might be, or to pinpoint what shadowed underwater light looks like. From the endpapers of the fishies to the animals you spot around the reef, Chin has taken his time with this book to make it absolutely marvelous. I think it took me several readings before I realized that like the squirrel companion in Redwoods, here we have a crab companion for our heroine who crops up in various pictures from time to time.
I once gave a tour of the Rose Reading Room (the place where everything in this book starts) to a group of kids familiar with this book. I led the kids to the place where the book occurs so that they could stand there themselves. I held up the images, drawing the attention of children and tourists alike. If there is a flaw in the book it’s that it shows the girl getting this very same book out of the Reading Room to read. That is untrue. To read this book you will have to go three floors down and enter the Children’s Center. There you will find a copy ready and waiting for you. A copy that will tell you everything you ever wanted or needed to know about the vast, amazing, entrancing world of coral reefs and the creatures that make it their home. Gorgeous work. Great facts. A singular title.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
- A star from Kirkus
- Check out additional info on Mr. Chin’s process here.