Earlier this year the Bologna Children’s Book Fair Ragazzi Awards honored Claire A. Nivola’s Orani: My Father’s Village in the category of nonfiction. Nivola’s newest book is a biography, and it’s just as good, if not better, than its award-winning predecessor.

Read the last Seven Impossible Things on the delightful 'Mr. and Mrs. Bunny.'

I think that, with confidence, I could hand Life in the Ocean: The Story of Oceanographer Sylvia Earle to aspiring picture-book authors and say, this is how a picture book biography is done. It is with great care, affection and detail that Nivola chronicles the work of Earle. This kind of passion for the subject matter shines forth from every spread and is one of the elements that makes a picture-book biography enjoyable to read.

Earle, 77, is an American oceanographer and biologist known for her environmental advocacy and named Time magazine’s Hero of the Planet in 1988. Nivola not only chronicles the facts of Earle’s life—at least up until her historic walk along the ocean floor of Hawaii (“deeper than anyone has ever walked!”)—but she also makes a larger point about environmental conservation using the remarkable accomplishments of Earle’s life.

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“Life came from the ocean long ago, and without the ocean none of us—neither you nor I—could survive a day,” Nivola opens. She also takes advantage of a well-crafted and lengthy author’s note at the book’s close to discuss the damage done to the earth’s waters, asking readers to ponder the fate of the oceans, something about which Earle cared so deeply:

            “Sylvia Earle would like us all to delight as much as she does in the underwater

            world, in the ingenuity and variety of our fellow creatures who dwell there. But

            she has also seen close-up how the ocean is suffering at our hands. She believes

            it is our ignorance of what is at stake that is in large part to blame.”

Earle lived her early childhood inland, Nivola notes in the book’s first spread, growing up on a farm in New Jersey. She spent many hours outside exploring. “She was far too curious to be afraid.” The ponds were her favorite spots, as she sat with a notebook to record what she saw.

At the age of 12, her family moved to Florida and lived very close to the ocean. It was here that, in the words of her mother, Earle “lost her heart to the water,” her first time seeing the blue-green of the Gulf of Mexico. In one very effective spread, Nivola fast-forwards years through Earle’s life—with a series of small, square illustrations—to show many of her impressive achievements: Swimming 30 feet to the bottom of a river, using her diving gear for the very first time; scuba diving in college; “joining an expedition where she was the only woman among seventy men on a research ship in the Indian Ocean”; deep-sea research off the U.S. Virgin Islands; descending 3,000 feet in the Pacific in a one-person piece of equipment she had helped design; and more.

All the while, Nivola relays the wonder Earle experiences and the deep reverence she has for her work. (“Sylvia says that hearing [the whales’] haunting and beautiful songs in the sea is like being inside the heart of an orchestra.”)

If you’re familiar with Nivola’s work, you know of her delicate and finely detailed paintings. “Nivola is a consummate artist,” wrote Tomie dePaola. It’s true. Her work here, especially with the deep, shimmering ocean blues, is vibrant.

sylvia earle

From one extraordinary lady to another, Nivola the artist to Earle the scientist, this is a tribute well worth readers’ time. 

Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog focused primarily on illustration and picture books.

Life in the Ocean: The Story of Oceanographer Sylvia Earle. Copyright 2012 by Claire A. Nivola. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York. Spread used with permission of the publisher.