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*Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau* by Jennifer Berne, illustrated by Éric Puybaret
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Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau
by Jennifer Berne, illustrated by Éric Puybaret
Ages 4-8 40 pages Chronicle Books April 2008 Hardcover    

The story of Jacques Cousteau is a compelling one. The Frenchman—an oceanographer, inventor, explorer, philanthropist, environmentalist and writer—was an extraordinary man, and his life’s work has become a remarkable legacy. As well as being an inspiration to adults, Cousteau is inspiring to children. His child-like sense of wonder and his uninhibited desire to explore the unknown endears him to youth of any age. Manfish tells the story of Cousteau’s amazing life, for elementary-school children.

It is the author’s first children’s book. Jennifer Berne rises to the task admirably (a reflection of her experience as a writer for Nick Jr. Magazine), preparing an elegantly written story told in a whimsical style, a cross between matter-of-fact relation of the details of Cousteau’s life and poetic representation of a man whose life was steeped in poetic events. This book works as a fun story for kids, but it could easily be a complementary text to a science class, or the launching pad for any number of school-based activities. It’s a great example of a crossover between education and leisure.

Beginning with his childhood, Berne retells how Cousteau became captivated by the aquatic world and moves through his life. She talks about how he wrote and illustrated books for fun, built models, and played film director. It’s a hook that draws in the young reader by saying, “Hey, this amazing guy started off doing the same things you do!”However, Berne does hover a little long on the dreaminess of his youth when she could’ve spent more time developing text about his adventures filming around the world.

Cousteau’s sense of wonder is only overshadowed by his drive and motivation. In order to share his love of the ocean, says Berne, he designed and built the aqualung—an invention that became the prototype for all scuba-diving oxygen tanks—and a clear, water-tight case for his video camera. When he discovered that industry was having a negative effect on the oceans of the world, Cousteau became one of the early environmentalists. Berne puts a nice spin on this by drawing in the child reader: “Jacques dreamed that someday it would be you, exploring worlds never seen, never imagined,” she writes. Ending on this note, she makes a statement that reflects the spirit of the explorer.

The book is illustrated by award-winning artist and experienced children’s illustrator Éric Puybaret. His paintings reflect the whimsical, dream-like text, and his knowledge of all things aquatic. Puybaret is a diver himself, and he has strived to accurately portray the world beneath the waves. There is a lot to look at—brightly colored fish, dolphins, whales, seaside towns, marine plants, and so on—but the pages aren’t busy. Most importantly, Puybaret has a distinctive style that is easy to drift into, easy on the eyes. Kids like it.

After reading this story, my two-year-old daughter has taken to pretending to be a manfish herself (or girlfish), swimming around on the floor with a cheeky grin on her face. While Manfish does work as a story book for toddlers, it’s best suited to older children. They will have the chance and the ability to learn more from the story and, hopefully, take from it some of Cousteau’s imagination, motivation, and love of the ocean.

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  Matt J. Simmons/2008 for curled up with a good kid's book  

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