We’ve been hanging out in Antarctica quite a bit of late, fruit of following Bella’s latest obsession. For a while last week our living room carpet was the ocean and a big Ikea box was an ice shelf. Or maybe mountains. A bunch of books spread at the base of the box were pack ice. One night Sophie and Bella in the bath were mermaids in Antarctica. One day I heard Sophie from the living room: “The penguin was standing all alone on the pack ice making noises to itself.”
I brought home a huge mountain of books about Antarctica for Bella to dive into, the fruit of a late-night requesting as many books as the library’s computer hold system would allow. (I wonder if some day she may begin to chafe at my feeding a small interest with a heaping pile of books. For now she just gasps in wonder and dives in with abandon.) Bella was so thrilled when she saw the stack. Many of them went back to the library after a quick survey. They were either too simplistic or too advanced for Bella.
Here’s a list of some of the books I renewed so that we could continue to explore them. Some of the books, especially the penguin ones, Bella has asked for over and over again. Some we are dipping into slowly a bit at a time. Some we may not get to at all. I am learning so much on this journey and I am once again amazed at Bella’s enthusiasm as she dives into a subject. It’s astounding how much information Bella stores away and how readily she can retell the details of what she’s heard only once.
In addition to the books, we also checked out a couple of documentaries about Antarctica and while we watched Bella would be telling Sophie all the things she knew about the penguins we were seeing. She was so excited to be able to observe the things she’d read about come to life in the videos.
1. Life Under Ice by Mary M. Cerullo, photography by Bill Curtsinger. The story follows a team of divers as they dive under the Antarctic ice to explore the fabulous underwater life. It is beautifully accompanied with stunning photographs, which was the main reason it made the first cut as a book we kept instead of sending back to the library. Once we started reading, however, Bella and I were both surprised at how engaging the narrative is. It definitely qualifies as a Charlotte Mason-style “living book”. I’m finding I really prefer books that achieve that difficult balance of discussing both the animals and natural environment of Antarctica as well as scientists and their experiences, their questions and their struggles with the harsh elements. I think seeing the human element helps to avoid the trap of anthropomorphizing the animals. But it also provides an element which helps both Bella and I to see ourselves in the picture. I don’t like as much the books and documentaries that carefully edit out the observers, the camera men and the scientists. I like the narrator to step into the frame, to be a part of the story.
Here the main character is the photographer, Bill. We are seeing Antarctica through his eyes both literally as he is the one taking the pictures that illustrate the book; but also figuratively. He asks the questions of the team of scientists: Why do the animals put up with the cold and ice? What kind of animal was that I saw? His experience organizes the story. Although many of the books we saw did take an occasional dip into the ocean—you rather have to when dealing with Antarctic wildlife—this was the only book we found that really went underwater and told the story of Antarctica by focusing on the ocean life, a bottom up approach rather than top down.
2. My Season With Penguins: An Antarctic Journal by Sophie Webb. I really like this beautifully illustrated diary of an American artist/scientist who travels to Antarctica to observe Adelie penguins. The engaging story follows the author-narrator, a biologist and artist, from San Francisco to Christchurch, New Zealand to McMurdo Base in Antarctica. We see the airports and planes. We see Sophie and her team being outfitted with cold weather clothes and gear, arriving at the base camp and traveling to the location of the penguin colony and then setting up their temporary camp and the various methods of observation. The watercolor paintings are charming and Sophie’s voice is quite engaging as she tells the story of her two months with the penguins. The scientific details are interesting and I could see Bella fascinated by the process of asking questions and trying to find out the answers: How do you determine how much and what kinds of food the penguins are giving to their chicks? How do you weigh a penguin? How do you know where the penguins are hunting and how long an individual penguin is at sea and whether penguins from different colonies have overlapping hunting grounds? I loved the small, homey details like how one of the scientists put her wool hat over the eggs to keep them warm when they lifted the incubating parents off of the nest to band them.
This is definitely one of the best books out there. One I’d consider adding to our own library.
Bonus: it avoids one of the most annoying features of most children’s stories about female scientists: all the over-enthusiastic twaddle about how girls can be whatever they want, do whatever they want, how they can overcome all the odds. Sophie’s accomplishments instead speak for themselves, as they should.
3. The Life Cycle of an Emperor Penguin by Bobbie Kalman and Robin Johnson is Bella’s top pick. Dom’s had to read it to her over and over again. I’ve not read it but it seems to be a basic overview, beginning with what is a penguin and a comparison of different species of penguins and then going into fairly close detail about the emperor penguins. I’m not sure there’s much special about the book or that there aren’t probably better ones on the subject; but this seems to get the job done.
4. Antarctic Journal by Meredith Hooper illustrated by Lucia de Leiris. We haven’t read this one but it looks really pretty and skimming it, I think the text looks well done. I think maybe Bella hasn’t picked it out because it looks a little too similar to #2, the other “Antarctic Journal” book with pretty watercolor images of penguins. Like that one, this is a first person narrative but Hooper is a historian rather than a scientist and this one seems a bit broader in scope, looking at a wide range of animals. I’ve got to move it up to the top of the pile.
5.Penguin: A Season in the Life of the Adélie Penguin by Lloyd Spencer Davis. The photography is beautiful and the book is very informative. I find myself a bit put off by the first person penguin narrator; but I think the girls are rather fascinated by it. (“Is it the penguin talking?” Bella asks, incredulous.) The section on mating is rather detailed and more than a little uncomfortable to read aloud. I find myself skipping bits and editing on the fly. We can get into some of those details a little later when my audience is more mature.
1. National Geographic – Antarctic Wildlife Adventure This documentary caught my eye because it focuses on a family—a mother, father, and three boys, ages 10, 8, and 5—who take their yacht to the Antarctic for the summer, traveling from their home in the Faulkland Islands. The father is French and first went to Antarctica twenty years before when he was much younger. He fell in love and going there has become a family affair—they often bring scientists along on the journey. They are conducting a survey of penguin colonies along the Antarctic Peninsula. Mom counts while the boys clamber about on the rocks, studying geology, looking at plants and moss, watching seals, and generally being boys. The five year old is especially cute. Mom is Australian and dad is French and the boys sound rather British to me. I loved the accents. I did wish the film had focused more on the family and less on the standard narrative about endangered natural spaces and the encroachment of man and global warming. I wanted more about the family dynamics, more footage of the kids being kids and of the kind of informal learning that must go on during these expeditions. Obviously if I’d been in charge this would have been a much different film. Still, it was different enough from the standard nature film and I do think having the kids in it helped my kids to engage with the film.
This disk had a second feature, that I didn’t expect as it wasn’t mentioned at all on the library’s description page. It was a shorter documentary about a group of mountain climbers who are the first people ever to scale a particular Antarctic peak, whose Dutch name I no longer remember but I’m pretty sure it meant something like razor. Bella was surprisingly engaged in the story and fascinated by the scenery and the drama of the climb.
2. March of the Penguins was a beautiful documentary, as I had been told by many people, and I mostly loved the narration by Morgan Freeman—except when it drifted too much into anthropomorphizing the penguins, which seems to be an almost unavoidable pitfall in nature documentaries. Or maybe it’s just the style of National Geographic? More than the movie itself, I actually enjoyed the extras on the disc which included a short film by the filmmakers on the making of the movie. This actually showed the cameramen and discussed the process of filming a movie that took an entire year to film so as to capture the entire breeding cycle of the emperor penguins. I think removing the people from the shots and focusing only on the animals makes it far too tempting to create a sentimental story, investing the animals with human traits and emotions in order to create drama. When you include the film crew, the story is much less sentimental and the animals remain animals—surprising, intriguing, beautiful but clearly animals and not people.