Ellen Prager, PhD, ocean scientist and author | The Children’s Book Review
Ask most kids to describe their idea of a scientist and you’ll get an old white guy wearing a white lab coat with a dull, monotone voice and no sense of humor. And what about science in general? The sad answers: boring, hard to understand, uses big unintelligible words, and simply no fun.
As one of my characters might say,“Aargh! That totally stinks!”
Science is awesome, especially ocean science. It involves adventure, exotic locations, and weird creatures with odd looks and amazing abilities. Add to that plenty of obstacles to overcome, quirky personalities, and issues that can impact the health of the planet and human lives. Sounds like the makings of a pretty good story. Throw in some relatable characters, age-appropriate humor, a touch of sarcasm, a little teenage angst, and, of course, a good villain, and voila—fiction for middle graders.
The idea to combine ocean science with fiction for youth arose several years ago while I was speaking about one of my popular science books, Sex, Drugs, and Sea Slime: The Oceans’ Oddest Creatures and Why They Matter. Parents and educators repeatedly asked if I had anything targeting middle grade (8 to 12 years old). I had previously published science-oriented books appropriate for younger children and older students, but nothing specifically for that age group. I was told that while there is plenty of great reading material for that age, little of it has to do with science, particularly ocean science. Yet, many middle graders are naturally curious about the ocean and interested in marine life, especially sharks and dolphins. It is also a very influential time in a child’s life. Experiences can have long-lasting impacts and potentially affect their career path and life-long interests.
With the elements of an entertaining story in hand, and the need to engage youth in reading, science, and the oceans, I decided to take on the challenge. Write a fast-paced adventure and humor-filled middle grade fiction series that also includes ocean science.
In May 2014, Scarletta published the first book, The Shark Whisperer, in the Tristan Hunt and the Sea Guardian series. The second book, The Shark Rider, will be released May 2015, with three more books planned. The stories involve real places, actual ocean habitats, and real-world ocean issues. In the first book, the main teen characters go to a “special” summer camp in the Florida Keys and later visit a marine laboratory on Lee Stocking Island in the Bahamas. There, they must outwit a shark-finning, coral reef-blasting villain. The adventure takes the teens into a stalagmite-filled cave, through coral reefs, and swimming over a few of the real geologic wonders of the area (stromatolites and ooids). Many of the characters’ experiences throughout the books are based on my own as a marine scientist. For instance, I lived in the Florida Keys and at one time was the director of a small marine laboratory on Lee Stocking Island. Each story also includes an assortment of sometimes-wily sea creatures. One of my favorites is a lock-picking escape artist octopus with camouflage capabilities equal to that of Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak. The difference here is that the octopus’s magic is real! Also making appearances in the books are sharks, dolphins, squid, jellyfish, parrotfish, seabirds, sea turtles, whales, seahorse, sea stars, mantis shrimp, stingrays, and more.
To bump up the entertainment and fun factor, I’ve added humor and sarcasm—my favorite part. In the first book, a shark gets dentures, a pudgy moray eel must go on an undersea diet and fitness program, and, at an opportune time, seabirds deploy a barrage of bird poop bombs on the bad guy. The upcoming books include a mantis shrimp with anger management issues, a vegan blacktip shark, a stingray hickey, and, yes, a sea otter with a little gas problem. More serious issues such as overfishing, marine pollution, invasive species, illegal fishing, and climate change are also incorporated into the stories.
To enhance the reader’s experience and provide information on where to go to learn more, I’ve created a website (www.tristan-hunt.com). Scarletta has also developed an educational activity guide to accompany the first book that can be downloaded for free at their website (www.scarlettapress.com). So far, the reader response has been fantastic, and we already have parents and kids clamoring for the second book in the series. The notes I’ve received from kids and parents are especially rewarding. One 7-year old who was reading The Shark Whisperer with his mother recently informed me it is his favorite book along with Harry Potter, he would like to play Tristan in the movie, and that he has a pet fish to play a fish.
Books provide an amazing platform to engage, inspire, and promote reading as well as learning. Ocean science is exceptionally well suited for integration into fiction for youth, making books not only entertaining, but also educational. It’s education on the sly.
I sincerely hope Tristan Hunt and the Sea Guardians will engage, entertain, and inspire readers and help to produce a new generation that is ocean caring and involved. And that it leads to an increasing number of books for middle grade readers that are fun and thrilling to read, while also providing a valuable science learning experience. Finally, for those kids who can attend a book event or talk, I guarantee I’m not some old white guy in a white lab coat with no sense of humor!
About the Author
Dr. Ellen Prager is a marine scientist and author, well known for her ability to make science fun and understandable. She has built a national reputation as a spokesperson on ocean and earth science issues and participated in research expeditions across the world. She was formerly the assistant dean at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and at one time the chief scientist at the world’s only undersea research station in the Florida Keys. She has written popular science and children’s books and is a frequently requested speaker at national conferences, schools, and events. Dr. Prager is currently a freelance writer, science advisor to Celebrity’s Cruise ship Xpedition in the Galapagos Islands, a Safina Center fellow, and an on-air expert for NBC News.
Earth2Ocean.net | Tristan-Hunt.com | Facebook
The Shark Whisperer
By Ellen Prager
After his most klutzy move ever, falling into a pool of sharks, things for Tristan Hunt begin to look up. Tristan is invited to an ocean-themed summer camp in the Florida Keys where he discovers that he and the other young teens there have very special and rare talents when it comes to the ocean. After the camp receives a distress call from ocean animals, Tristan and his new friends get pulled into a daring rescue in the Bahamas. With the help of sharks, dolphins, a quick-escape artist octopus, and some seabird bombers, the campers must use their young talents in an attempt to outwit an evil shark-finning, reef-blasting billionaire.
Ages 8-12 | Publisher: Scarletta Junior Readers | May 1, 2014 | ISBN-13: 978-1938063442
The Shark Rider
By Ellen Prager
After thwarting the dastardly plans of JP Rickerton, Tristan Hunt is having trouble keeping his newfound talents a secret. And if undercover spies and a mysterious illness threatening to expose the secrets of camp weren’t enough, reports of dying fish and disappearing sponge in the Caribbean call Tristan and his friends back into action. Will the Sea Guardians discover the source of the problem before time runs out? Can they escape the threat of an oncoming storm? Or will a betrayal from one of their own ensure it’s already too late?
Ages 8-12 | Publisher: Scarletta Junior Readers | May 1, 2015 | ISBN-13: 978-1938063510
Discover more science and ocean themed books by checking out our articles tagged with Science Books and Ocean Books.