July 08, 2010


How to Clean Your Room in 10 Easy Steps. By Jennifer LaRue Huget. Illustrated by Edward Koren. Schwartz & Wade. $16.99.

Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam, and the Science of Ocean Motion. By Loree Griffin Burns. Sandpiper. $8.99.

     Ah, room cleaning -- that eternal bane of children’s existence, that constant irritation to parents, that unending source of family conflict! In the hands of Jennifer LaRue Huget, it becomes so amusing that parents and kids should really read the book together, laugh at it together, and then hopefully develop a little mutual respect and some shared perspective – maybe even doing some room cleaning together. Well, that may be too much to hope for, but at least How to Clean Your Room in 10 Easy Steps can be a welcome distraction when neither kids ages 4-8 nor their parents really want to confront the reality of a super-messy room. Not that the girl who narrates the book – and is charmingly portrayed in the instantly recognizable illustrations of frequent New Yorker cartoonist Edward Koren – has a super-messy room. It is only of average messiness, which means the average parent will likely tear most of his or her hair out when contemplating it. But have no fear! Step by step, the narrator shows just what to do, starting by messing up her clean room so there will be enough sloppiness for a suitable demonstration. Beginning with listening to your mother only when she hollers and “uses all three of your names,” the steps progress from pulling “Every Single Thing” out of drawers, closets and shelves, through dumping everything into a big pile, separating the big pile into three smaller ones, shoving as much as possible into your closet (while foisting some items on your sister), and using delaying tactics such as arranging stuffed animals and reading old books. Matters eventually progress right through to dusting and sweeping. The narrator has everything figured out. For instance, you should “scoop up as many [dust bunnies] as you can with your hands. Stash them in the sock drawer with the candy wrappers. You know, for crafts.” Giving yourself a compliment at the end, while your mother beams at your apparently clean room, is an integral part of the process. But parents may need to remind children that they’re on to all the tricks shown in the book, and that dust bunnies are not really the adorable multicolored creatures portrayed in Koren’s art. In other words, don’t try this cleaning approach at home, in the real world – but by all means use it to gain some real-world perspective on this inevitable task.

     A much more serious sort of cleanup issue, of much wider – in fact, worldwide – concern, is the subject of Loree Griffin Burns’ Tracking Trash, which introduces parents and children of all ages to ocean scientists who use the study of weather and currents “to see what the ocean does with our trash,” in the words of Curt Ebbesmeyer, who has tracked sneakers and rubber ducks to find out how and where the ocean moves things dumped into it by humans or by chance. Ebbesmeyer is a scientist who takes advantage of problems and turns them into research. For instance, a spill of five huge containers of sneakers from a ship caught in a storm in 1990 became the basis of a study of ocean currents – thanks to information from beachcombers around the world who found sneakers and reported on their locations and when they were discovered. This sort of study is by no means simple, since ocean temperatures and currents vary depending on a variety of factors: “Although they flow in the same general location and direction each year, the exact boundaries of the currents shift from season to season and from year to year.” This aspect of ocean currents was further studied with rubber ducks – after 28,800 of them ended up in the ocean because 12 containers from another cargo ship went overboard during a different storm. Young readers will enjoy learning why the tub toys were expected to move faster than the sneakers (the rubber ducks float on top of the water and are therefore moved by wind as well as by the ocean itself). And Ebbesmeyer is continuing to track spilled objects, as a chart in the book shows: there are LEGO pieces, computer monitors, plastic soap dispensers and many more odds and ends floating in the ocean right now, waiting to be found on beaches to help scientists learn how the ocean works and how humans may learn to do a better job of cleaning up things that end up in the water and can be dangerous to wildlife and to people themselves. The book’s findings are clearly relevant to the huge amount of oil that started pouring into the Gulf of Mexico after the explosion of a deepwater drilling rig in April – although that event occurred long after this book was written in 2007. The problems caused by debris in the ocean can be quite serious, as the discussion of “ghost nets” (masses of fishing nets that have become detached from boats but remain in the water and continue to catch fish and other marine animals) makes clear. The book’s final message – “study, understand, protect” – is one whose importance will be quite apparent to concerned readers of all ages after they finish this fascinating look at some unusual approaches to scientific research.