Today, in honor of Nonfiction Monday, I’m reviewing Dan Yaccarino’s The Fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau. I must say, this picture book made me nostalgic: I grew up fascinated by Cousteau’s television programs. That history made me especially excited to weigh in on Yaccarino’s book.
Picture Books for Children: Summary
The picture book begins with Cousteau’s boyhood, in which he overcame difficult health conditions by swimming in the Mediterranean Sea. Yaccarino points to Cousteau’s fiercely determined and innovative spirit, even as a boy. The picture book also brings out the fact that Cousteau loved to tinker as a boy; Yaccarino describes one occasion on which Cousteau bought a movie camera with his own money and then promptly took it apart to see how it worked.
The turning point in the picture book comes when a friend gives Cousteau a pair of goggles with which he could see underwater while swimming. According to Yaccarino, “Those goggles changed his life forever.” The experience of viewing the underwater world through goggles started Cousteau on a quest to explore that world as no one had ever done before.
Cousteau and his friends developed equipment that allowed them to remain underwater for long periods, and to photograph and film what they saw. They then began sharing their incredible discoveries with the rest of the world, in photos, films, and television programs. The picture book also relates how Cousteau became an advocate and defender of the oceans when he discovered that his beloved Mediterranean Sea was being affected by pollution.
Subjective Appeal: Great Storytelling, Shimmering Illustrations
Well, if the rapt attention of my focus group (my seven-year-old daughter!) is any indication, this picture book has substantial subjective appeal. First, Yaccarino turns Cousteau’s life into an interesting story. In my view, telling a story is the best way to engage kids in factual material, whether historical or scientific. The success of books in The Magic School Bus series and the Magic Tree House series, which mix fiction with nonfiction, are evidence of this. Of course, turning Cousteau’s life into a good story is not particularly difficult, since he led such an interesting one.
I especially like how Yaccarino traces the continuity between Cousteau’s childhood and adult life. Yaccarino does a good job of bringing out Cousteau’s boyhood determination and persistence in the face of obstacles. Given this tough-minded start in life, the reader is unsurprised—though no less delighted—to learn that Cousteau refused to let the lacking state of contemporary technology hinder his underwater adventures. If the technology was inadequate, Cousteau simply invented new technology, such as the Aqua Lung, and tools for underwater photography and filming.
The picture book also tells Cousteau’s story with lots of concrete examples and anecdotes that capture a child’s imagination. For example, when Yaccarino wants to show that Cousteau had an early aptitude for things mechanical, he tells the story about deconstructing the camera (which I described in the summary above). This sort of concrete example brings the point alive for a child. One of my favorite anecdotes relates how Cousteau and his crew discovered some jars of 2,200-year-old wine on a sunken ship off the coast of France: “They tasted the wine. Alas, it was bitter.”
Yaccarino’s illustrations are also wonderful. For the most part they are highly colorful and stylized paintings of people exploring the underwater world of the ocean. Yaccarino’s use of color and shade brilliantly captures the shimmering play of underwater light. Marine wildlife abound in the illustrations: octopi, coral, seaweed, whales, penguins, jellies, and fish of all descriptions. It is this marine life that is bursting with color and accent in the illustrations. In contrast, the people exploring the ocean are generally portrayed in a very simple, nondescript manner. This contrast between the sparkling ocean environment and the plain people suggests the way Cousteau might have seen the world: it was the ocean that gripped his imagination.
One last point about the appeal of this picture book: on each two-page spread Yaccarino inserts a Cousteau quotation, set apart from the main text in little circular bubbles. Here are a few examples: “I flew without wings”; “It fascinated me to do something that seemed impossible”; “The best way to observe a fish is to become a fish.” Okay people, what else do you want? Get thee to a library!
Developmental Value: Edifying Themes, Exemplary Character
In addition to its strong subjective appeal, The Fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau is developmentally valuable in several ways. Specifically, the picture book exposes children to several edifying themes. First, of course, it is educational just to learn more about Cousteau as an historical figure. Indeed, in writing this picture book Yaccarino seems to be following up on another of Cousteau’s choice quotes: “When one man, for whatever reason, has the opportunity to lead an extraordinary life, he has no right to keep it to himself.” Yaccarino is Cousteau’s partner in the worthwhile project of “not-keeping-to-himself” Cousteau’s rich and interesting life. For those who wish to swim deeper, there is a brief chronology of important events in Cousteau’s life on the last page of the book, along with a list of additional resources to continue learning about Cousteau.
Second, the picture book helpfully exposes children to the wonders of underwater wildlife. The book might well stir up a child’s interest in the ocean, and would be a great supplement to a trip to the aquarium. Indeed, I can also imagine that the picture book would fit well into a classroom or homeschooling unit involving the study of underwater wildlife, and perhaps a viewing of one of Cousteau’s films.
In addition to the edifying themes, Cousteau is portrayed as an exemplary character in the picture book. His persistence in the face of obstacles, his inventiveness, his passion and curiosity, and his environmental conscience make him a model for children and adults alike.
In short, The Fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau is an excellent example of nonfiction picture books for children; I highly recommend it for children aged 6-to-8-years. I encourage you to find it in your local library, or to support my work by purchasing it through the links in this post, or in the Children’s Books and Reviews online bookstore.
What do you think? Any questions? Leave me a comment; I’d love to hear from you. And if you enjoyed this review, why not post it on Facebook or Twitter? The “Share/Save” button below makes it easy. Thanks!