The Girl Who Built an Ocean by Jess Keating, illustrated by Michelle Mee Nutter

The Girl Who Built an Ocean: An Artist, an Argonaut, and the True Story of the World’s First Aquarium by Jess Keating, illustrated by Michelle Mee Nutter. Alfred A. Knopf, 2022. 9780593305119

Rating:  1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 4

Format: Hardcover picture book

Genre: Biography

What did you like about the book?  When young French seamstress Jeanne Villepreux-Power moved to Sicily with her wealthy husband, she was instantly drawn to the wonders of the Mediterranean Sea.  She began collecting shells, pebbles, and other specimens that caught her attention, and soon these collections overtook her sewing supplies, and natural history became her life’s work.  She would sketch the interesting sea creatures she saw, but the animals often swam away before she had a chance to really observe them.  So she constructed an aquarium for her study, and then two more that went into the open water, all of which provided her with opportunities to observe behaviors of a variety of creatures.  Her special curiosity was about an animal called an argonaut, a small octopus which was sometimes seen with a shell and sometimes not.  Jeanne was able to collect argonaut eggs and raise them in her aquariums, and despite indifference or disdain from other (male) scientists, she continued to study them for ten years.  She learned that argonauts build their own shells and even have the ability to repair them.  She shared her research with oceanographers around the world, and is credited with having built the world’s first aquarium.

This picture book biography delves into the life and work of Jeanne Villepreux-Power, focusing in large part on those qualities that made her successful in her early career as a Parisian dressmaker but also were essential to her work studying sea creatures:  patience, persistence, creativity, and attention to detail.  Jess Keating always does a great job making science accessible to her readers, and this book is no exception.  The friendly writing style and digitally-rendered illustrations, which resemble the artwork of some of today’s popular graphic novels, give the story a modern feel even though the events depicted took place nearly 200 years ago.  Author’s notes and a timeline give more information about Jeanne’s work; there is also a little bit about the argonaut and its shell.

Anything you did not like about the book?  No

To whom would you recommend this book? It’s a great follow-up to Keating’s previous books Shark Lady and Ocean Speaks, both of which explore the lives of female ocean scientists.  Where those books are popular or useful, this one will be too – for an upper elementary unit on women in science, or on ocean life, for example.  

Who should buy this book? Public and elementary school libraries

Where would you shelve it?  Nonfiction 578.77, or Biography

Should we (librarians) put this on the top of our “to read” piles?  No

Reviewer’s Name, Library (or school), City:  Leigh Russell King, Lincoln Street School, Northborough, Massachusetts.

Date of review: November 21, 2022

This entry was posted in *Book Review, *Picture Book, Author, Biography, Illustrator, Jess Keating, Michelle Mee Nutter, Oceans, Scientists, Women's history and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.