Nonfiction children’s books about coral reefs aren’t incredibly common. Those written by a Ph.D. students are perhaps less common.
Erin Spencer has pulled off something very few people have, then. The marine ecologist and Ph.D. candidate in FIU’s Predator Ecology and Conversation lab has finished her de ella first science-focused children’s book, The World of Coral Reefs: Explore and Protect the Natural Wonders of the Seawhich will be released this month.
Growing up, Spencer loved books. Every time she asked her parents of her to take her to the Baltimore County Library, they always agreed. The DK Eyewitness series and Bill Nye’s Big Blue Ocean were among her favorites. But all books became portals to other worlds, possible futures. They also sparked another love for writing.
Even today, when Spencer isn’t studying critically endangered great hammerhead sharks, she’s probably at her home office standing desk, writing about the ocean. Her fascination with her guides her. Curiosity about everything from bright blue bioluminescence in the deep sea to the rather bizarre looking gulper eel becomes a prompt, a chance to dive into different subjects and topics.
To post anything on the Internet can feel like shouting into the void. Spencer knows this. She’s shouted for years, anyway. A sort of persistence that paid off.
The publishing company Storey was looking to create an educational, science-focused children’s book. They also wanted something a bit harder to find — an author familiar with the science. The Storey team turned to Google and luckily stumbled across Spencer’s website and her writing from her.
While Spencer loves visiting elementary and middle school classrooms and participating in Skype a Scientist sessions to speak about her research with kids all over the country, she never really considered writing a children’s book. Storey approaching her with the idea changed everything.
“Writing is something I do in my free time because I love it. The fact the people at Storey saw my potential was a dream to me,” Spencer said.
Every opportunity, though, can present a challenge. Writing the book was no exception. Spencer needed to tailor her messaging for an audience of 7-to-10-year-olds, something she’d never done before.
So, she turned the whole writing process into a fun mental exercise, one that required a bit of time travel — back to her own childhood. She tapped into the spirit of that little girl who begged her parents to take her to the library and spent hours exploring the Jersey Shore on vacation and studying the illustrations in Pearson’s Field Guides, trying to identify the animals she encountered.
Spencer knew one universal truth about childhood. It’s a time when curiosity is insatiable, infinite.
“What I didn’t want to do with this book is underestimate how much kids could comprehend,” Spencer said. “I thought about myself at that age and also about how whenever I do outreach events at schools, I’m always blown away at how much students know and how much they can understand.”
Symbiosis. Spawning. invertebrates. These words usually appear in high school or college textbooks. Spencer to weave them into her book by Ella, making readers decided young scientists who explore the biology and ecology of reefs, as well as the threats reefs face from pollution and climate change. She also includes the challenges facing these important ecosystems, along with real-world tips and tools for protecting the world’s reefs — that apply to everyone, everywhere, no matter how near or far away from the ocean they may live.
The magic of this underwater world comes alive through the intermingling of Spencer’s words and Alexandria Neonakis’ illustrations. For Spencer, one of the most mesmerizing parts of finalizing the book was watching how Neonakis interpreted the text to create such vivid, colorful depictions that are also scientifically accurate.