What lurks beneath?
Beneath the water, we find luminescent vampire squid and weighty blue whales. We find super-heated hydrothermal chimneys, sonar-pinging submarines and scientists who roam the watery terrain in submersibles.
Beneath the ground, we find a realm of geysers, volcanoes and tectonic plates. Here also dwell giant earthworms, warthogs and deep roots of wild fig and camel thorn trees. In the subsurface world, humans mine and tunnel and excavate to unleash bones and fossils.
The oversized book Under Water, Under Earth by Polish graphic artists Aleksandra Mizielinska and Daniel Mizielinski brings to vibrant life all of these beings, processes and activities. Aimed at children ages 7 to 9, this volume (new to the U.S. in October but released earlier in the year abroad) will appeal to a much broader age range, including, if I am any bellwether, adults.
The book is a top-opener: that is, you open the cover as you would a steno pad. Or, I should say, you lift one of the covers. One way to plunge in is via the brilliant turquoise Under Water cover; halfway through, you then flip the book upside down and continue with the earth pages. Or begin by tunneling in through the richly ochre-colored Under Earth cover — and then flip to watery depths.
The first time I felt this book's heft and gazed at the bright blues, pinks, greens and rich earth tones of its pages, I actually let out a gasp. Here is a book that brings sensory pleasures.
Mizielinska and Mizielinski don't take a pristine, humans-hands-off approach to nature. People are right in the middle of things, alongside the other animals, plants and geological processes. Sometimes the text has a hint of the Guinness World Records about it: Kids learn that the longest rail tunnel in the world is the 35.5-mile-long Gotthard Base Tunnel in Switzerland — built for high-speed train service through the Alps — which took two decades to construct.
Gritty topics make the cut, too: The channeling of waste in subterranean sewage purification plants — through grills (which hold back "the largest impurities, such as food waste"), settling tanks and bioreactors — is described straightforwardly. In this way, kids are invited to think in unexpected ways about how much goes on that's tucked "beneath," out of our sight.
Most important of all, the science is engaging. For example, the two pages devoted to colossal squid (not to be confused with the less massive giant squid) feature an enormous blue eye, which the book explains is as large as a soccer ball in real life. These eyes are needed because the squid's habitat is "all-surrounding darkness deep underwater" in the Southern Ocean. How fascinating to learn that no one, even right through 2016, has seen one of these creatures in its natural environment — but that the stomachs of sperm whales often contain the indigestible beaks of this species. (The beak is hidden among the squid's tentacles and is used "to kill, then grind down" prey.)
It would have been a welcome feature if the written material about the colossal squid — or the nearby pages about "deep dwellers" like Dumbo octopuses or blobfish — had linked different species' adaptations directly to evolution. As I wrote here this summer, now more than ever parents, teachers and other mentors need to inspire literacy specifically pertaining to evolution in our young children.
In gazing at the "Archaeological Finds" double-page spread, I noticed that the archaeologists depicted are diverse in age and gender. The flesh tones of each person are quite light, but in the equal-size "Caves" spread, the speleologists and spelunkers have darker skin. That demographic variety is maintained fairly well throughout. Attention to these matters isn't trivial political correctness but important in ensuring that all kids see themselves depicted in important roles through the book.
I don't know anyone involved in creating or publishing this book but — Wow! — I'm just excited about it. I can imagine a boy or girl spending quite some hours with Under Water, Under Earth in the way that, in the 1960s, kids pored over the Life Science Library's Time Life books on natural history.
Barbara J. King is an anthropology professor emerita at the College of William and Mary. She often writes about the cognition, emotion and welfare of animals, and about biological anthropology, human evolution and gender issues. Barbara's most recent book on animals is titled How Animals Grieve, and her forthcoming book is Personalities on the Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape