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Cover illustration
See permission.
The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.
Down Down Down: A Journey to the Bottom of the Sea

written and illus. by Steve Jenkins

Wondering where to find—or where not to go in order to avoid—the giant tube worms on our cover? Steve Jenkins, author-illustrator of such creative nature books as Actual Size (BCCB 5/04), not only tells, he shows, in this inventive look at the
ocean’s tiers of habitation.

Other books have looked at the denizens of the sea, and a few (especially Sandra Markle’s Down, Down, Down in the Ocean) have even taken a stab at describing the various levels of ecosystems in the briny deep. Jenkins, though, has found a particularly illuminating approach to explaining the majestic depths of the ocean and the different populations at its various levels. Each spread features a brief overview of the characteristics of that depth and a few sample residents, while a vertical bar (shaded from blue to black to represent the decreasing degree of sunlight available as one descends) on the right border indicates the depth (in feet and meters) and temperature (in Fahrenheit and centigrade) of the ocean level that hosts the featured population. The levels start with “The Surface,” with its flying fish and dolphins gamboling under blue skies, then proceed through “The Sunlit Zone” (here explored from about ten feet to 300 feet below the surface), where all manner of marine life dwells. Then we’re off to “The Twilight Zone,” (about 600 feet to roughly 1600 feet down), where no plants grow and bioluminescence is the norm, then down to “The Dark Zone” (3,300 feet down to the bottom), where no sunlight reaches and the inhabitants look increasingly bizarre to us land-dwellers. Finally there are various ocean floor ecosystems, such as the hydrothermal vents that provide energy for our cover worms, and the very lowest spot in the ocean, “The Marianas Trench,” at 35,838 feet below sea level and 36º F.

The result is a fascinating revelation of the fact that most of the sea residents with which we are familiar are shockingly shallow, superficial even, in their
tendency to hang around in the first 100 feet or so, while below them yawn seven miles of darkness and otherworldly habitation. The watery marine backgrounds start with limpid blue and progress to inky black as the levels grow deeper, which is both an accurate representation of the dimming of light and also an effective reminder of the descent (the largely black progress bar on the right is a dramatic indication of how startlingly little of the ocean receives any sunlight at all). While readers probably expect the suave elegance displayed by the lithe and hydrodynamic fish and the deep-sea fearsomeness of the giant squid, they’ll be intrigued by the less-common figures and gratified by the tidy identifiers attached to each critter—how else to recognize the lanky siphophore, which resembles a constellation bedecked with streamers, or the deep-sea jellyfish, which looks like something that would have brought in the Martians in The War of the Worlds? The cut-paper art glories in the distinct articulation of scales, plates, and spines, and its compositions are helpfully illustrative but rarely static, with creatures sometimes sculling open-mouthed toward the viewer or locked in combat with one another. The text operates on the theory that we’re viewing the ocean from within our vessel (depicted in the final spread); this conceit allows for additional information, such as the fact
that ascent from the bottom will take two hours, and for clever treatment of the ocean’s darkest reaches (a nifty spread shows what the biolumescent animals of the previous spread would look like without our illuminating light). Five concluding pages offer thumbnail descriptions of the animals, broken down spread by spread, and a helpful visual to convey scale.

A must for any geography or natural history collection, this will be a great preparation for an aquarium visit or any discussion of ecology. More than that,
however, it manages to convey the fact that most of our world is very, very different from what we experience, and that there may be nothing so strange and wonderful as our own planetary home.

Deborah Stevenson, Editor

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Cover image by Steve Jenkins from Down Down Down: A Journey to the Bottom of the Sea ©2009. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Books for Children.

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This page was last updated on July 1, 2009.