April 02, 2009


The Fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau. By Dan Yaccarino. Knopf. $16.99.

The Swamps of Sleethe: Poems from Beyond the Solar System. By Jack Prelutsky. Illustrated by Jimmy Pickering. Knopf. $16.99.

     The wonders of life beneath the sea are things that today’s children can take almost for granted, so common are they on television shows and in books filled with real-life pictures or carefully rendered drawings based on underwater photography. So it may come as a big surprise to kids ages 6-9 that there was no easy way to explore the oceans and take those marvelous photos until one man, Jacques Cousteau, made ocean exploration and preservation his life’s work. Dan Yaccarino’s The Fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau traces the great undersea explorer and inventor from his childhood as “a weak and sickly boy” to his great successes as an adult – and his determination to help preserve the oceans when he discovered that they were being systematically damaged by human activity. Yaccarino shows how much the ocean gave Cousteau: he built up his boyhood strength by swimming, and later (after a serious car accident while he was still a boy) recovered full use of his arms by further water activity. Cousteau gave much to the oceans, too, exploring their beauties and the creatures living in them for his entire adult life, using his famous ship Calypso and such inventions as the underwater camera and the aqualung, of which he was co-discoverer. The inventor in Cousteau comes through clearly in this book, and young children will enjoy Yaccarino’s drawings of him tinkering with a camera and, later, creating things to make ocean exploration more practical. Yaccarino talks about Cousteau’s famous documentary films and his TV series, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, which ran for a decade. And he sprinkles his narrative with quotations from Cousteau himself – the language a little advanced for the 6-9 age range, but not overly so. Because he is targeting young children with this story, Yaccarino omits or downplays the many tragedies in Cousteau’s life, including the death of one of his sons and the sinking of Calypso in Singapore Harbor in 1996. But these gloomier facts are available at the end of the book, and older children who become interested in learning more about Cousteau will want to know them – and perhaps pursue further information in the books that Yaccarino recommends.

     And speaking of gloomy: that is not an adjective usually applied to the poetry of Jack Prelutsky, so it is a good thing The Swamps of Sleethe is recommended for kids ages eight and up rather than for younger children, because this is the darkest poetry book Prelutsky has written. There are no wonders of the universe here – every poem is about an imaginary place where terrible things can, do and will happen to any space explorer intrepid enough to set foot on it. The title poem features “malignant beings…Abhorrent things that need not breathe,/ And yet are quite alive.” In the forests of Festor, Prelutsky writes, “Every bush, every bud, every blossom/ Is filled with malevolent will./ The prettiest mosses may poison,/ The loveliest lichens may kill.” This is not at all what readers expect from the usually upbeat and offbeat Prelutsky; and the illustrations by Jimmy Pickering, although they are not as strong as the words of the poems, reinforce the rhymes with skull-and-crossbones flora, a frozen space explorer about to shatter into bits, and one of the swamp-thing-like Globulings of Wolvar Sprod: “They’ll place you on a pedestal,/ And endlessly revolve you,/ Until they weary of their sport—/ And that’s when they’ll dissolve you.” This is a book in which a planet that makes you cry and one that makes you laugh prove equally deadly; and it is a universe in which nothing less than Lovecraftian echoes resound: “The Beholder in the Silence/ Keeps its vigil all alone/ For a reason and a purpose/ That forever stays unknown,/ On that chill and nameless planet/ Where no wind has ever blown” (this poem gets Pickering’s eeriest illustration, too). The Swamps of Sleethe is probably not chilling enough to give most kids in the target age range nightmares, but it ought to be kept away from younger siblings. For children with a well-developed liking for the outrĂ© and generally weird, Prelutsky has now shown that he can be their poet as well as the bard of fizzier and funnier topics.

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