April 23, 2009


Down, Down, Down: A Journey to the Bottom of the Sea. By Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin. $17.

What’s Inside? Fascinating Structures Around the World. By Giles Laroche. Houghton Mifflin. $17.

     Here are some real-world journeys that are every bit as fascinating and surprising as most fictional ones. Down, Down, Down proceeds exactly as its title indicates: Steve Jenkins starts with a view of Earth from space, then drops to a level just above the Pacific Ocean, and then – after showing what sorts of sea creatures live near the surface (and even move into the air occasionally), he begins the long journey to the deepest spot in the ocean, almost 36,000 feet down. Near the surface, where “the water is warm and brightly lit by the sun,” we encounter familiar-looking sea creatures, accurately portrayed in Jenkins’ drawings. By a depth of 33 feet, sunlight is fading and water pressure increasing, but still the dwellers are familiar: tuna, sailfish, sea turtles and more. At 10 times that depth, though, light is far less and water pressure is 10 times what it is at the surface; here, soft, fluid-filled animals such as jellyfish thrive. Go down twice again as far, to 660 feet, and “there is not enough light for plants to survive – only animals live below this depth,” a surprising revelation for anyone who thinks of plant and animal life as inextricably intertwined. And now the denizens get stranger – this is where the goblin shark and snipe eel are found. And down, down, down readers go, encountering ever-weirder creatures as the waters become darker and the pressure vastly more intense. “Nine out of ten animals that live below the sunlit layer of the ocean are bioluminescent,” Jenkins explains – a fascinating statistic, and just one of many here. The deeper we explore, the more peculiar sea life is: the huge-mouthed pelican eel, the deep-sea jellyfish that resembles a flying saucer, the female hairy angler with a glowing lure at the end of a stalk that sticks out from her head, the small but huge-toothed loosejaw stoplight fish, and many others. Then we reach the weird layer of ooze 13,000 feet below the surface, called the abyssal plain – as strange a place as any imagined planet in science fiction, yet it is right here on Earth. And there is still more, for even in the deepest part of the ocean, an area still virtually unexplored, there is known to be life. This is a truly extraordinary tale, scientifically accurate yet as fascinating as a work of fiction, and with five pages of additional details on the animals portrayed in the book at the end – for young readers captivated by this amazing visit to the world far beneath our feet.

     There are amazements on the surface of Earth, too, and Giles Laroche explores some of them in What’s Inside? Laroche shows the outside of places both well-known (King Tut’s tomb, the Parthenon) and less familiar (the arched Puerta del Sol, through which one enters Toledo, Spain). And these are not merely monuments: Laroche takes readers inside a Shaker dairy barn in Massachusetts, a circus tent, and the Petronas Twin Towers in Malaysia, in each case not only showcasing the structure but also discussing the people who built it and the ones who use it today. So we learn that in the ship-shaped Georgia Aquarium, built in landlocked Atlanta, visitors can walk along a 100-foot-long glass tunnel that makes them feel as if they are under the sea. We discover that the Sydney Opera House, that Australian city’s most distinctive landmark, took 12 years to build because of the complexity of architect John Utzon’s design. We find out that the castle of Segovia, where Queen Isabella once lived, is the model for the castle at Disneyland. We discover that the temple of Kukulcan at Chichen Itza, Mexico, has four stairways, each with 91 steps – which, added to the single step at the top, makes a total of 365, the number of days in a year. Packed with pleasantly presented information and accurately rendered drawings, and offering an illustrated glossary of architectural terms at the end, What’s Inside? provides a fascinating journey through some remarkable buildings and places. An insider’s guide, you might say.

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