I wanted so much to like Menorah Under the Sea (Kar Ben, September 1, 2009) — I loved the concept. It’s the true story, told in photos, of a scientist in Antarctica studying sea urchins. When Hanukah rolls around, he makes a menorah out of sea urchins on the freezing ocean floor (no, he doesn’t light them on fire, silly), then surfaces, takes off his wetsuit, dries off and fires up his little travel menorah with his colleagues (some? all?) of whom are Jewish too. Simple little tale for kids 4-8, and could be such a cute way to introduce scientific concepts. (The scientist, David Ginsburg, is a marine biologist trying to figure out how sea urchins survive in the coldest water on earth.) The photos are great, and the layout (with brilliantly colored — colorized? — sea urchin photos scattered on the boxes of text) is very cute. But oy, the text itself! First of all, you can’t ask of the sea urchins, “What is their secret?” unless you TELL US. To a child, “secret” is a magic word! “Secret” is like Chekhov’s gun: “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” Fire it, author Esther Susan Heller! Tell us more about David’s research, his theories, or why it matters that sea urchins can live in super-duper-cold water! Are there implications for humans in David’s research? Who knows! At least put it in an afterword if you don’t think it belongs in the text, m’kay? Alas, the book is just not enticingly written — David never comes alive as a character, and we never get a visceral sense of how cold Antarctica is (make us feel it, author Esther Susan Heller!). For some reason the typeface changes a couple of pages into the book, and the tenses switch around from past to future perfect and then to past again. Pourquoi, author Esther Susan Heller!!?? I wish the story had been handled as a straightforward narrative: Who is this David? How’d he get into the ecology of the ocean? Why should we care about him? We don’t know who he’s missing back home when he lights his menorah. We don’t know anything about his colleagues at the research station. Basically what we have is a rilly nifty photo of a guy in a major hardcore wetsuit lining up sea urchins in a menorah shape on the ocean floor. Not enough.
Compare this to Tadpole Rex — now THAT’S how you do kid science. Great writing, funny, witty, a clarifying author’s note at the end explaining why tadpoles have an “inner tyrannosaur,” how they came before and outlived the dinosaurs, and what the current threats to frogs are. Oh, and a main character you care about, even if he’s slimy. I assume David Ginsburg is not slimy, yet we do not care.
Menorah Under the Sea is a pleasant alternative to a more traditional Hanukah book, but it coulda been so much more.