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Can't Start a Fire Without a Spark

The Importance of Fiction in our Love for Science

Swimmy by Leo Lionni, Penguin Random House Books

We're starting the new year off with the spark of something new, a collection of stories that celebrates the intersection of art, science and story, the creative space we like to inhabit. Whether it’s a drop of water or a clear night sky, the world is full of science (not in the bruised or beleaguered sense of the word that this pandemic has politicized, but in its purest sense). And science has a narrative, often a mysterious one, that drives people to observe, explore, question and create. Science helps us better understand the complexity of the particularly wonderful universe we inhabit together. Most of what we are collecting for you here are stories about water and conservation with the hope that it will connect readers and educators to excellent work that promotes ocean literacy and environmental stewardship.

What is Ocean Literacy?

Having ocean literacy, means that we grasp the nature, significance and meaning of our relationship with the ocean. Even if we live in the middle of the continent, the ocean impacts our lives through weather patterns, climate and resources. At the same time, we can impact the ocean through our activities , our choices and as consumers. The Ocean Literacy Network designed this diagram to illustrate the 7 principles of Ocean Literacy and an interactive version of this is available on their website by clicking the image below.

Ocean Literacy can begin in fiction: Swimmy by Leo Lionni

A book does not have to be non-fiction or overtly educational to be an effective ambassador for the ocean and share ocean literacy principles with its readers. Sometimes child-honoring fiction books are the best place to spark a child's imagination which naturally leads to further exploration.

I am often asked at school visits and presentations about my favorite books growing up. The picture book that means the most to me is the Caldecott Honor book Swimmy by Leo Lionni. I loved that book so much that I named my pet goldfish Swimmy. The dreamy palette to Lionni's illustrations inspired me and I remember, at nap time, staring into his "medusa made of rainbow jelly", where he captures the iridescence of a jelly fish, and thinking, "that is my favorite color". I also remember before I could read it myself, always looking forward to my mom getting to Lionni's line, "... an eel whose tail was almost too far away to remember ..." and thinking, "that is the most beautiful sentence I have ever heard".

Fiction can wake us up to the beauty of what's around us, or even far away from us. I didn't grow up near the ocean, but in a town on Lake Michigan. When I was old enough I would dive down, maybe 8 feet, and lay underwater on the sandy bottom to watch the waves roll over the edge of rocky reefs above me. I liked the gradient of turquoise and blue colors and how they met at a fuzzy horizon with the tans and creamy colors of the wave-shaped sand. Lionni's illustrations were stylized, but also true to this world that I was witnessing and it felt deeply familiar. Lionni's book planted in me this love for the underwater world that carried me on to study marine biology in college. I spent time working on projects about freshwater algae and endangered water beetles, dolphins, periwinkle snails, diamondback terrapins and harmful algal blooms. I attribute my first falling in love with the water to reading Swimmy over and over again, a book that exposed to me the wonder of what can be found in the sea in a language (both visual and written) that was not overly didactic or condescending.

Swimmy is categorized as a book for children ages 3-7 by Penguin Random House. I was a preschooler when my mom first shared it with me. When I look now at the Essential Principles and Fundamental Concepts to Ocean Literacy diagram on the Ocean Literacy website, Swimmy very compellingly communicates Principle 5, that "The ocean supports a great diversity of life and ecosystems" appropriate for the K-2 grade levels.

(Source: Ocean Literacy: The Essential Principles and Fundamental Concepts of Ocean Sciences for Learners of All Ages Version 2, a brochure resulting from the 2-week On-Line Workshop on Ocean Literacy through Science Standards; published by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Published June 2005, revised March 2013)

It also could be used as a spring board into Principle 7, that "The ocean is largely unexplored", because Swimmy's exploration leads him to a greater understanding of his environment and he shares his adventures to improve the lives of others.

Because it is a Caldecott Honor and considered by many to be a classic book in the history of children's literature, there are plenty of activity guides available online to go along with reading Swimmy. Here are some ideas below to get you started:

Praise for Swimmy:

“With his accustomed subtle interplay of graphic wit, clear language, and plain thinking, Lionni wisely proves that a minnow’s grasp should not exceed his oxygen supply.” —The New York Times

“A superior book, simple, but eye-catching.” —School Library Journal.

“If the picture book is a new visual art form in our time, Leo Lionni is certain to be judged a master of the genre.” —The New York Times

(Source: Penguin Random House

About Leo Lionni

Leo Lionni was an author and illustrator of over 40 books for children. His work was uniquely playful and he received four Caldecott Honors over the course of his career for Inch by Inch (first published in 1960), Swimmy (1963), Frederick (1967) and Alexander and the Wind Up Mouse (1969). Over half a century later, his books are still read and his creative influence can also be seen in the work of authors and illustrators publishing today.


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