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Book Review: Coral Reef (One Small Square) by Donald M. Silver, Illustrated by Patricia J. Wynne

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Without the benefit of scuba diving classes and a collection of rented equipment, most children will not grow to see the coral reefs of the world in person. Brought vividly to life in the imaginations of children through the major animated film Finding Nemo and the short, live action segments that make up “Come See the Sea” on children’s television programming, the coral reefs of the world serve as a sticky point of interest to delve into the life cycles of the creatures who make this fascinating ecosystem their home.

In Coral Reef – part of the One Small Square series for six to nine-year-old children, an in-depth, vividly illustrated journey travels through a small portion of the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia. Focusing in on an three-dimensional section of reef measuring four feet to a side and extending down in a rectangular column roughly twice that in length, series author Donald M. Silver guides young readers through the intricacies of reef flora, fauna, reproduction, nocturnal creatures, inter-species cooperation and many other fascinating features of this vibrant ecosystem.

With such a treasure of interesting animals and plants to work with, Silver unearths a plethora of fascinating trivia, facts, and foundational premises for life in the reef. From fish that cover themselves with slime at night to mask their aroma, to those who masquerade as friendly helpers in order to steal a bit of flesh, a wealth of memorable encounters are brought vividly to life through the visual pictures crafted through a vivid use of descriptive prose.

In Silver’s trademark style the dangers in currents around reefs for divers is briefly pointed out, as well as some short safety tips. Although Silver realizes that children aren’t likely to be making a hands-on exploration of the reef themselves, the series-wide emphasis on appropriate safety precautions makes its presence known in this title as well.

Due to the improbability of children exploring reefs in diving equipment Silver has substituted hands-on observational activities and experiments that illustrate the scientific concepts explored from the perspective of reef life. For example, after the observation of nocturnal reef life through the pages of Coral Reef, Silver encourages children to record their own findings regarding nocturnal plant and animal life in their own backyards. Instructions for a simple reef diorama, building a reef with Lego, observing the grooming habits of domestic animals and many other educational activities are also provided to turn the book into a multi-sensory educational experience.

Patrica J. Wynne’s incredibly detailed illustrations draw children into the exotic world of the reef – filled with colour, motion, and incredible complexities. Her work is realistic and stands out as the work of a truly talented artist in the school of natural observation. Though created for children, her elaborate reconstructions of reef life on the page can compare favorably with the work of any other naturalist.

Our entire family, young and old, admired the artwork; my three-year-old was particularly taken in by the visual glossary of each creature mentioned in the text at the back of the book. We read the book in bite-sized chunks – though written in a form more narrative than textbook, there is still a great deal of information to be digested.

Whether your child’s interest in reefs has been sparked by a famous film or visit to the fish section of a local pet store; whether you are preparing for a visit to a public aquarium that feature displays which recreate life in the reef or planning a unit study on coral reefs. No matter how you approach it, Coral Reef is sure to fascinate.

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