Some books are are more challenging for the writer than others. For me, In the Sea, the third book in the Candlewick poetry series, was one of those books. Farm animals. No prob. Who doesn’t love a cow? Wild animals? Scary sometimes, but it wasn’t impossible to project myself into the life of a tiger prowling the jungle for his next meal. Or to imagine what it might feel like to howl on a lonely moonlit night. (We call writing “work”; so much of it is play.) But I found it nearly impossible to conjure up the day-to-day life of, say, a shrimp. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but with one or two exceptions, I found the animals that live in the oceans, well, kind of soulless.
I was both perplexed and dismayed by this discovery. After all, I love the sea. But weirdly, the world’s oceans seemed more like living entities than almost any the creatures whose lives they support. Not surprisingly, whales and dolphins came easier to me.
Eleven years and seven books later (In the Sea was published in 2011) I now understand that this failure of imagination has to do with my own classism. (Taxo- rather than eco- nomic. Linnaean rather than Smithan.) In other words, I was finding it almost impossible to relate to any creature that wasn’t like me – that is to say, a mammal. Whales: Good! Anemones: WHAT?
Love ya, Flipper. Mean it.
There are anywhere from 240,00 to 25 million species of marine animals. (That wide, nearly meaningless span is accounted for by the fact that some scientists estimate that 91% of marine animals are yet to be discovered.) My first task was choosing which fifteen creatures from that available 240,000 to include in a thirty-two page picture book. Since I had shut myself off from any warm and cuddly feelings, I opted for form. I knew, too, that the book would present a special challenge for Holly, since the context of the animals would always be, uh, water. I wanted to help by giving her as much variety in the animals themselves as I could. With that in mind, my first choice was the octopus.
This iconic cephalopod couldn't be more different in shape and size from the sardine that appears later in the book.
How can a woodcut make an animal seem so lithe? Some people have talent.
Many of the poems are short.
One poem or four? I could never decide.
Many make use of descriptive or figurative language.
I am still astounded by Holly's ability to interpret a simple text. Yikes!
Some play with language.
It's true, you know. The seahorse is a fish.
“The Sea Turtle” might be my favorite poem in the book.
When I have the opportunity to use a fancy word like carapace. I take it. Kids aren’t dumb.
In spite of my ignorant, self-imposed obstacles while writing In the Sea, the book was received well and is still selling nicely. Here's a snippet from the (starred) Booklist review: "Elliott and Meade's newest collaboration is a playful exploration of life in the sea... The poems are tailor-made for reading aloud, with vocabulary sophisticated enough to challenge emerging readers while also engaging them in the fun of wordplay... A magnificent merger of words and images. It will not only appeal to poetry fans, but to all those children who marvel over the mysteries of the deep."
With each new book in the series, as I read and learned more about the life with whom we share the Earth, my respect, understanding, compassion, and appreciation for all the animals on the planet has grown. Thankfully, I am no longer the classist I once was. For this, I will always be grateful to Candlewick Press for allowing me to grow not only as a writer but more importantly, as a responsible and more democratic citizen of the planet.
Next week: A tribute to Holly Meade.