May 14, 2015


The Octopus Scientists: Exploring the Mind of a Mollusk. By Sy Montgomery. Photographs by Keith Ellenbogen. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $18.99.

Chu #3: Chu’s Day at the Beach. By Nail Gaiman. Illustrated by Adam Rex. Harper. $17.99.

In the Waves. By Lennon and Maisy Stella. Illustrated by Steve Björkman. Harper. $17.99.

Florabelle. By Sasha Quinton. Illustrated by Brigette Barrager with photographs by Michel Tcherevkoff. Harper. $15.99.

     Every book in the “:Scientists in the Field” series is an adventure, but The Octopus Scientists is a stranger one than most. Octopuses – this and “octopods” are the correct plurals, with the book explaining why “octopi” is not right – are bizarre and thoroughly amazing creatures: blue-blooded, with three hearts and the ability to taste through their skin and tentacles. There are more than 250 types, some only half an inch long and some growing to 20 feet. They are boneless but have a super-brainy look thanks to their bulging mantle – which, however, is not their head: it contains their gills, stomach, hearts and other organs. Yet octopuses are brainy, solving problems with surprising speed and in different ways, according to their individual personalities. How do we know all this? The knowledge comes from scientists such as Jennifer Mather, leader of the team whose explorations are the subject of Sy Montgomery’s fascinating book. Marvelous photographs by Keith Ellenbogen bring young readers into the waters where Mather and her fellow scientists search for octopuses – no small feat, since these mollusks are absolutely brilliant at camouflage, changing not only their color but also their shape. One octopus studied at an aquarium became so eager to eat a crab offered inside a box – in an experiment designed to find out whether the octopus could figure out how to unlock the box – that instead of fussing with the lock, the octopus squeezed its entire body through a tiny hole and ended up in a perfect cube shape. Stories about friendship, or at least communication, between humans and octopuses, are offered here, along with absolutely amazing photos of the mollusks watching the scientists or simply going about their daily lives in ways so unusual that octopuses seem to live on another planet, or at the very least another plane of existence. Yet the whole point of The Octopus Scientists is that these strange and amazing creatures are not otherworldly: they live right here on Earth, in the oceans, and their health and that of the waters where they live are inextricably intertwined. The realism of this book, as of others in this series, lies not only in its portrayal of real scientists doing real work, but also in the real issues and confusions with which scientists live and without which science could not advance. “As is often the case in science, our field expedition generated more questions than answers,” Montgomery explains – and that is just what makes science so fascinating: it is a never-ending quest of exploration, whether of a mollusk’s mind or of any other topic.

     Young readers looking for something lighter, much lighter, have many new water-oriented books from which to choose: when winter gives way to spring, publishers start anticipating summer and bringing out books with a distinct beach focus. There is, for example, Neil Gaiman’s third book about Chu the super-sneezy panda, Chu’s Day at the Beach. There is even an octopus here, but it is a thoroughly humanized one whose mantle (typically for a children’s book) is its head – and whose job is selling ice cream to the monkeys, tortoises, snakes and other beach visitors shown charmingly in Adam Rex’s illustrations. While a frog sunbathes and a crab reads a book, Chu and his parents enjoy being on the sand and in the water – until Chu produces one of his hurricane-like sneezes, which is so powerful that it parts the waves quite as effectively as Moses parted the Red Sea. Unfortunately, this particular parting of the waves has unintended consequences for ocean life, leaving sea creatures unable to swim from one place to another – as a whale comments, “With the sea broken, I cannot go home.” Not even the friendly greeting that Chu gets from a merpanda can fix things – Chu simply must sneeze again and, as the octopus ice-cream seller says, “put this back the way it was.” But for once, Chu cannot sneeze, not even when a seagull tickles his nose with a feather or when the little panda takes a drink from a soda whose bubbles go up his nose. It takes a smart suggestion from a helpful snail to get Chu to do something that, yes, results in another tornado-force sneeze – one that fixes the ocean very nicely but, as readers will see, does not quite put everything “back just as it was before,” even though Chu says that is what it does. Still, everything ends happily, with Chu even giving an ice-cream cone to a merpanda who says she sometimes sneezes, too (although presumably not quite as forcefully as Chu does). Gently amusing and quietly absurd, Chu’s Day at the Beach is a lovely summer outing for the little panda’s many fans.

     A beach day is also in store, or seems to be, for Lennon and Maisy Stella of the TV show Nashville. The two cannot wait to be In the Waves, but they are taking a long time to get ready in a book based on a song they wrote with MaryLynne Stella and Carolyn Dawn Johnson. With Mama repeatedly urging the girls to get a move on, the two spend lots of time “getting all ready for some sister fun,” imagining riding a dolphin, feeding a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich to a friendly shark, diving for sunken treasure, building a sand castle, getting a lift from a cooperative whale, and much more. Eventually, Mama “says she’s tired of waiting/ So we better get in,” and so the girls finally do just that – but not into the car to go to the beach. It turns out that the place they are heading is the bathtub, where they have just as great a time as they would at the beach, thanks to their imagination and the fact that they are “two sisters who pretend a lot.” Enlivened by plenty of super-upbeat Steve Björkman illustrations, this imagination celebration is a great way for kids to take a mini-vacation while staying at home, enjoying their “staycation” just as much as they would an actual trip to the beach. Or almost as much, anyway.

     In Florabelle, a little girl does get to go to the beach, but if it weren’t for her imagination, the trip would be a big letdown. Florabelle is a dreamer all the day, every day, in every way, to such a point that she does not listen very well and is not always aware of what is happening in the world around her. She looks at her reflection in a glass door and sees herself as a ballerina – becoming too distracted to sit at the table for breakfast. She looks in the mirror of an armoire and sees herself as a fairy princess – forgetting that this is a school day and her sister is warning her that she is going to be late again. Her enjoyment and antics go too far when she plays Rodeo Queen at dinnertime, accidentally pulling the tablecloth and all the things on it onto the floor. There will be no beach trip the next day if Florabelle does not listen, her parents say, and the beach is one of Florabelle’s many dreams – a big one – so she buckles down and becomes “very S-E-R-I-O-U-S. Just like her family.” For the time being. So everyone does get to head for the beach after all – but Florabelle finds major disappointment there, because the sea looks deep and dark and “very, very undreamy!” Indeed, Brigette Barrager’s illustration here shows all sorts of unpleasant-looking (but not too scary) creatures in the water, just waiting for Florabelle to come in. The very next page shows the reality of Florabelle’s family happily having fun in the warm, pleasant water, despite the tentacles and other strangenesses that Florabelle imagines all around them. Sasha Quinton has Florabelle stay on the sand, grumpy and unhappy, until the little girl gets another of her imaginative ideas: how would the sea seem if she were a mermaid? That does it: Florabelle jumps into the water and has a great time, imagining herself amid all sorts of real and impossible sea creatures (including some whose illustrations nicely incorporate flower photos by Michel Tcherevkoff). It turns out to be a great beach trip after all, ending with Florabelle back home in bed, drifting off to sleep amid a sea of imaginatively flowery, watery, dress-up, magical dreams – a perfect end to a perfect day.

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