Friday, October 14, 2011

TALE OF A GREAT WHITE FISH [a sturgeon story]



Written by Maggie de Vries

Illustrated by Renné Benoit

(Greystone Books, 2006)

Here is a fish story that seems like a “fish story”: too exaggerated to be true. Yet, the facts are accurate. This book is another example of how to write an engaging nonfiction picture book. (See also, Surprising Sharks.) Most young readers will not be familiar with the great white sturgeon, but they will soon be in awe. Author de Vries begins with a once-upon-a-time equivalent: “Even before dinosaurs roamed the earth, sturgeon swam in its waters.” Older than dinosaurs? There’s an initial hook, but it gets better.

In telling the story of one sturgeon, readers will get more of a feel for the facts. Page entries begin with the time period in all capital letters and the initial writing is for Late Spring, 1828, a seemingly ancient date for the target audience. Before reading anything more, I ask students to figure out how long ago 1828 was. Some guess randomly, others try some creative mental math. Either way, the thinking establishes an investment in the story. An adult sturgeon spawns. Some eggs become larvae and then become small fry, including one named Little Fish. The story jumps to 1858. Little Fish is now Fish and basic stats (in metric and the American system of measurement) now follow the date for each entry. Here: 30 years old, 1.7 m (5.6 feet) long, 32 kg (71 pounds). This is another time to stop and make meaning of the numbers. Otherwise, the reader glosses over the key data. I grab a measuring stick and the reader(s) and I figure out the length. We talk about the mass (weight). When the facts are understood, the awe regarding the great white fish builds. Murky sand colors of a river bottom provide a unifying backdrop to Benoit’s understated art. Readers get just enough from the illustrations, but the story and the facts remain the central focus.

Eventually Fish becomes Big Fish, surviving challenges presented by man and nature. Big Fish ages to 52, then 69, then 85 and grows to 3.8 m (12.5 feet) and 364 kg (802 pounds). Each time, we stop and measure. We get a better sense of these figures. Readers mumble comparisons to sharks and whales.

In 1968, a boy sits on a dock and is wowed in seeing this 140 year-old, 17-foot long, 1,358-pound Goliath jump in the water. This unforgettable experience leads the boy to advocate for the sturgeon’s protection when he becomes an adult and a Canadian hero. The boy/hero’s identity is only revealed in a letter appearing after the glossary in the book, a thoughtful detail ensuring the man does not overshadow the fish.

I have read this book to many classes and small groups. It has always captivated the audience. When I first tested the story with a grade five class before the book was published, I did it as a favor, not thinking it would be a hit. But numbers, when understood, can play a significant part in engaging readers. With younger students, we move about and measure floor space in the room to better visualize the size of the sturgeon. Part of the appeal may be that the book is not a sit-still-and-listen tale. Active engagement makes the sturgeon story memorable.

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