Recently I was thrilled to discover, not one, but TWO picture book biographies about Eugenie Clark, the daring ichthyologist who devoted much of her life to researching sharks and dispelling myths about them. Of course, this piqued my interest, not only because I had never heard of Eugenie Clark prior to this find, but also because I was interested in what each book had to offer. How did each portray Eugenie? What did the illustrations illuminate about her research? What sort of back matter does each book feature? And, more to the point, do we really need two biographies about Dr. Eugenie Clark in an already crowded field?
In our industry, a not-so-secret rumor has it that the publishing houses have overbought picture book biographies. It makes sense that publishers rode the exciting wave of biographies, and it’s certainly possible for the field to become saturated.
So, how do these two biographic picture books measure up?
Shark Lady: The True Story of How Eugenie Clark Became the Ocean’s Most Fearless Scientist
Written by: Jess Keating, Illustrations by Marta Alvares Miguens
Shark Lady, published in 2017, is a sweet, bright unfolding of Eugenie Clark’s life. The real work of this book is to highlight how Dr. Clark, through meticulous research, dispelled the common misconception that sharks are mindless killers. The illustrations are cheerful. Keating has some whimsical play with words throughout the story, featuring Eugenie diving into books, plunging into academic courses, and fishing through her mind to devise an experiment. The back matter is presented across two spreads. The first spread details facts about sharks, gives a little information on Dr. Clark’s discovery of shark sleeping patterns, discusses their sizes, their manner of giving birth, and the species’ resilience over millions of years. The next spread features a beautiful timeline of Dr. Clark’s life and discoveries. As a whole, it’s a lovely book that serves as a nice, if somewhat basic, introduction to Eugenie Clark’s research.
Swimming With Sharks: The Daring Discoveries of Eugenie Clark
Written by: Heather Lang, Illustrations by Jordi Solano
Swimming With Sharks, published in 2016, sets a different tone from the beginning. The illustrations are darker, more suited for an older picture book audience. It seems to capture from the cover the stakes of Dr. Clark’s story. The cover features little Eugenie with her hands pressed against the shark tank glass, her tiny braids dangling over her shoulders, while behind the glass, enormous sharks loom. This book gives a little more detail about the obstacles in Eugenie’s professional path and details her research with more specificity (how she trained a pair of lemon sharks, for example). Swimming with Sharks also drives home the theme of sharks being misunderstood. There is not as much detailed back matter, though the dedication highlights the author’s interaction with Dr. Clark’s assistant and son, among others intimately familiar with her research and story. This type of devoted research about Dr. Clark’s life yields some compelling dramatic detail to the story. My one critique is that, though the illustrations are beautiful, they are so dark that some of the detail is difficult to make out.
Overall, Swimming With Sharks packs a little more punch for the page, though Shark Lady would be a more popular choice among younger readers with a burgeoning interest in ichthyology.
Ultimately, and perhaps predictably, this Mama thinks that both are valuable, even essential, additions to the field.
Now, where did I put my snorkel mask?