I'll bet you haven't really thought about sea stars. Have you really thought about how perilous a simple meal can be for them? How life ebbs and flows with the tides? Okay, maybe that's a little philosophical. But Janet Halfmann reveals a whole new world of information about the ochre sea star in this gorgeous book. This is one of the Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book nominees this year, which is why I picked it up. However, I am impressed with how this appeals to the youngest readers and listeners.
First of all, a note about why we are talking sea stars and not starfish. In her notes at the back of the book, Halfmann writes that the name sea stars suits this family better because they are not fish at all. They are related to the sand dollar, the sea urchin...sea animals with spiny skin. But that's just a note. I know I wondered as soon as I opened the book if sea stars and starfish were the same creature. Halfmann does the right thing here by both referring to the creature by its correct name (in this case, we are learning about the ochre sea star) and explaining the differences further in the back matter.
So here is Sea Star, the ochre sea star we are watching throughout this book. Her daily trip takes her from coastal rocks to the shore to feed, riding in with the tide. Then after a day-long struggle to find accessible food, she goes back out with the tide, or she tries to. Halfmann has a very relatable style. She explains both Sea Star's daily life and her special features to readers in fairly simple text. The text is easy for even the youngest listener to understand. While my three year old couldn't tell you exactly how a sea star moved, she could tell you that she uses her feet to pry open the mussel, like a tug-of-war.
What I like about the way Halfmann has chosen to create this book is that it is full of information, but there aren't a lot of complicated facts to weigh down the plot. For instance, there are no facts about how far a sea star can travel, or how often they need to eat. But each page is packed with contextual information about the sea star's habits and survival skills. This information is included very naturally within the text, and because the information is couched in the story, children learn it all easily. There is also suspense in this sea star's day. She is nibbled on by a fish and almost gulped by a gull. In both instances she has to use her survival skills (like losing a ray) to escape. The sea star is definitely made real by this text. We know it is a female, and we root for her to get enough food, to make it through the day successfully. But on the other hand, Halfmann does not personify Sea Star with cute features - she is very real and acts appropriately.
Paley's illustrations help make the connection between fact and story stronger for young readers. The illustrations are created out of hand-painted papers to make the collaged double-page spreads. They are richly colored, and Paley uses this technique to its fullest. Readers can see the grains of sand, almost feel the rough rocks the sea star clings to. Paley does one large double-page spread and then includes a detail in a pop-out square for readers to examine more closely. One criticism is that sometimes that closer look isn't at Sea Star with her unique characteristics. For instance, on a page where the text is talking about the eyespots on the tips of the sea star's rays, the closeups are of the mussels she's heading towards. This isn't what I thought was most interesting about that page of text.
But this is a minor quibble with what are really amazing illustrations. The watercolor blends and textures Paley creates give a real sense of movement to the ocean and to Sea Star herself. On a page where Halfmann describes Sea Star flipping over "like a circus acrobat", Paley takes insets and cantilevers them. You can see the sea star has flipped over from square to square, but the cantilevering gives a sense of the actual movement. These illustrations are so realistic as well - there is a sense of being down at the beach, staring at the sea star in a tide pool.
There is quite a bit of back matter to support this book. This includes information about ray regeneration, the aforementioned explanation about sea stars and starfish and some diagrams of the sea star. I can't help but wish for a map of the ochre sea star's habitat (the Pacific Ocean) even though Halfmann describes it. There is also a bibliography of other age-appropriate books as well as a few websites and a brief glossary. This is well done marine biology that even a preschooler can enjoy.
Note: I am on the Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book panel, but this blog post does not represent the committee's thoughts about the book. It only represents my personal ideas and thoughts.
Star of the Sea: A Day in the Life of a Starfish. Janet Halfmann; illustrated by Joan Paley. Christy Ottaviano Books: Henry Holt & Co., 2011.
Borrowed from Helena School District