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Ph.D. student's first book helps kids explore life on coral reefs
Photo credit: Drew Butkowski

Ph.D. student's first book helps kids explore life on coral reefs

March 28, 2022 at 10:02am

Nonfiction children’s books about coral reefs aren’t incredibly common. Those written by a Ph.D. student 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 first science-focused children’s book, The World of Coral Reefs: Explore and Protect the Natural Wonders of the Sea, which will be released this month.

Growing up, Spencer loved books. Every time she asked her parents 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 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.

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 decided to weave them into her book, making readers 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.

One of Spencer’s favorite spreads highlights the different animals on the reef. She had the chance to handpick a few of her favorites to include (like the goatfish!) and even some that hold some significance (invasive lionfish, a species she studied as an undergraduate!) Of course, there’s also a shark or two.

Whether it is an illustration of a captivating, charismatic animal or a fun fact — like that corals also live at deeper depths in the ocean — Spencer hopes her book can be a window to a world that’s not easily accessible to most people.

All she’s ever wanted is to share her experiences, the awe and excitement she’s felt diving at hundreds of reefs. Now, she hopes that sharing the wonders of the underwater world can captivate a child, which is the first step in wanting to learn more. The quest to know more ultimately leads to care — and wanting to make a difference.

“I really hope that as kids learn more about the reefs from the book, their knowledge is something they are proud of and that they take pride in the fact they invested time and energy into learning about the reefs and can share that with their friends and family,” Spencer said. “Curiosity is so natural to kids. When it’s cultivated and encouraged, the possibilities are endless.”

Spencer is counting down to March 29, the day her book appears on bookshelves. She’s excited. Maybe a little anxious. Mostly, she looks forward to visiting local libraries and sharing her book and story with children.

“I’ve loved books and reading my whole life. To take something I love and put it in a book is such an incredible and humbling place to be.”