It is often hard to convince people of the value of saving endangered species. One can argue for the importance of biodiversity, but when one asks people to sacrifice—whether not to build that beach resort, for instance—there has to be an emotional connection. And the emotional connection has to be made early.
Stacy Nyikos does an admirable job of creating the emotional connection between young children and an endangered sea turtle—with absolutely no preaching—in her new picture book Toby, illustrated by Shawn Sisneros and published this month by Stonehorse Publishing. Along with dozens of siblings, Toby hatches on a beach and must find his way to the sea. But the others got a head start, leaving the runty reptile alone and dependent on the song of the sea to find his way. Other creatures offer “help”—a pelican who suggests Toby jump into its mouth for a ride, a crab who points to shelter in its hole, a crocodile who asks Toby to get some sand out of its throat. (This book would be a good tool for creating awareness of “stranger danger” among young children as well.)
Through vivid, humorous verse and colorful illustrations, children see how smart little Toby foils the “helpers”: “’Maybe next time,’ Toby said. / And then fast as turtles can, / He buried the old rascal / Underneath a pile of sand.” There’s some fun, some peril, and finally safety as Toby finds his brothers and sisters and the place where he belongs.
An Afterword offers facts about sea turtles and suggestions for further reading.
Toby was the result of very enthusiastic young readers. I do a lot of aquarium signings since I have four…now five aquatic picture books. The number question I get – aside from, “where’s the bathroom?” – is “will you write a book on a sea turtle? This went on for about five years, but I still didn’t have a story idea. I was beginning to think I never would. Then one day, one glorious aquarium signing day during which everybody was so upbeat and fun and full of energy, as I was walking to the parking lot, the idea came to me in full form. It was as if all those wishes had reached some sort of point of idea crystallization. All I had to do was write it down. Okay, I had to wait five years, too, but it finally came!
All of my aquatic picture books are an attempt to create a story that connects young readers with ocean life and makes them care. Kids are amazing. They can do amazing things. It was kid initiative in England that got fishing nets changed to dolphin friendly ones. They have the potential to change the world. My goal is to create a mesmerizing story that makes them want to know more about the ocean, and then deliver a little taste at the end of the book with a facts page and further reading that keeps them caring and exploring and making a connection with the world around them. If my stories can do that, then I’ve done what every writer sets out to do – make their reader feel and keep feeling.
I was amazed that it took so long for her to write the picture book, but Toby is worth the wait and a great way to get young children to care and to make changes in their own lives on behalf of the living things around them.