December 26, 2013


The Runaway Hug. By Nick Bland. Pictures by Freya Blackwood. Random House. $16.99.

Sea Turtle Scientist. By Stephen R. Swinburne. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $18.99.

     Love comes in different forms and different levels of complexity in fiction for kids and in the real world of adults. But at bottom, it is still love. The Runaway Hug is a charming little story for ages 3-7, about a girl named Lucy who asks her mother for a hug – at which point her mother jokes that she only has one left, and that Lucy can have it. Well, Lucy immediately decides that something so precious as that last hug has to be preserved. She promises to bring it back to Mommy as soon as she is finished with it – and runs to all the members of the household to deliver the hug and then get it back. She starts with Daddy, who accepts a hug from her and then gives it back “stronger than before, but just as nice.” She then takes it to her two older brothers, twins who return it “twice as big as before, but just as nice.” Then she takes it to baby Lily, who also accepts it and returns it: “It smelled like peanut butter, but it was just as nice as before.” But then Lucy runs into a problem when she delivers the hug to Annie, the family dog: Annie runs away with it, and Lucy is so upset that she almost starts to cry. But then Annie returns with a hug “a lot more slobbery than before, but just as nice.” So Lucy gives Mommy back the hug – “a little sleepier, but just as nice as before” – and settles into bed, asking for a good-night kiss. And Mommy gives her that immediately, saying she has plenty of those. Nick Bland’s simple, repetitive writing and Freya Blackwood’s warmly winning illustrations make this a lovely bedtime tale about a family sharing and re-sharing the love that holds families together.

     But little girls grow up, and love becomes more complicated and is expressed in more ways – including, sometimes, in the choice of one’s profession. It is remarkable how often love is the driving force behind the activities of the researchers in the excellent “Scientists in the Field” series – as it assuredly is in Stephen R. Swinburne’s Sea Turtle Scientist. Right at the start, the book introduces Kimberly Stewart, the only sea turtle scientist on the island of St. Kitts, who explains straightforwardly that ever since childhood, “I loved everything related to animals. …I knew I was going to be a vet.” Now Stewart runs a sea turtle monitoring program that she herself established – helping to save these fascinating, endangered reptiles at St. Kitts and, as part of an international scientific community, around the world. Stewart’s personal story quickly turns into a very well-told introduction to sea turtles in general, including everything from their inability to retract their limbs into their shell to their amazing weight: one leatherback turtle, a member of a critically endangered species, weighed more than a ton. It becomes easier and easier as the book goes on to understand why Stewart loves these animals, whose grace and beauty underwater are coupled with an endearing awkwardness when the females emerge on beaches to lay eggs – and when the hatchlings make a mad dash from the beach toward the relative safety of the ocean. But as Stewart explains, only one sea turtle egg out of a thousand will eventually produce an adult sea turtle. That tremendously high mortality rate has been worsened by human depredation, against which scientists are now trying to fight back through beach cleanups, habitat improvement, modification of fishing techniques that often inadvertently catch and kill sea turtles – and attempted cultural change, since there are many areas where sea turtles or their eggs are deliberately harvested for food. Because the people who deliberately hunt and kill sea turtles are often subsistence fishermen who see no other way to keep themselves and their families alive, building trust in order to help preserve the turtles is difficult and time-consuming, and Sea Turtle Scientist explores that issue along with many others. Swinburne’s well-paced, straightforwardly written book is packed with his photos of turtles on land and under water, of Stewart going about her daily tasks, of volunteers helping out, of kids at Sea Turtle Camp, and of adult islanders learning about the importance of preserving these marine reptiles for their children and grandchildren. From scenes of a classroom where Stewart teaches about sea turtles to a page explaining the contents of a “turtle-watching toolkit,” Swinburne’s book packs a lot of information, a lot of enjoyment and, yes, a lot of love into this story of a scientist whose research and conservation efforts are clearly very strong reflections of her personality as well as her education and professional commitment.

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