In this special guest post, our own Jim Wharton shares the backstory of Catastrophe by the Sea, a newly published, empathy-themed children’s book, which was inspired from our work to develop empathy for animals to promote conservation. Check out his story below to learn how it all came about and where you can get a copy for the little readers in your life.
For several years, the Aquarium has studied the role of empathy in promoting conservation. Empathy is the ability to perceive, understand and care about the experiences or perspectives of another person or animal. We most often feel empathy for other people, but we can also feel empathy for animals. This led us to the idea of a children’s book. Animals are regular protagonists in children’s books, but these characters are primarily vertebrates and often charismatic mammals. Could we create a book that would allow kids and their caregivers to empathize with strange and exotic marine animals, like sea anemones or barnacles?
With the help of graphic designer Alison Grevstad, we assembled an award-winning creative team in author Brenda Peterson and Caldecott Medal–winning artist Ed Young. The children’s book features Catastrophe, a lost cat on the beach, who discovers the amazing world of the intertidal zone. At first, Catastrophe is a bit of a bully, but over time, he learns the anemones and barnacles of the tide pools are friends with superpowers of survival.
“We love the charismatic cat,” several New York City editors responded. “But lose the tide pool creatures. They’re boring. No one wants to read about a barnacle.”
“There’s a reason beachcombers step on barnacles and anemones,” another editor pointed out. “They’re ugly and underfoot. Who cares about them?”
We chose to go with the publisher West Margin Press in Berkeley, California, who realized that the tide pool creatures were also main characters—not only in our story, but also as vital inhabitants of the ocean ecosystem we all share. When one editor suggested that we not name all the characters, the Aquarium pointed out that naming the cat but not sensible Buddy the Barnacle or Naimonee, the lovely sea anemone, denied the latter two the connection and empathy they so deserve. Our publisher understood the conservation issues and readily agreed.
We’re so grateful to West Margin Press, Alison, Brenda, Ed and all the Aquarium staff involved with the project for their perseverance and clarity of our vision. Catastrophe by the Sea is now available for purchase in the Aquarium gift shop and just about anywhere children’s books are sold. We hope it strikes a chord with audiences and fosters a little empathy for animals less like us.