Books dive into world of aquariums


June 17, 1994|By Molly Dunham Glassman | Molly Dunham Glassman,Sun Staff Writer

Used to be, if you lived in Baltimore, no one came to visit in the summer.

Now out-of-town friends and relatives drop in despite the heat and humidity, and before they head down the parkway to Washington, they expect their hosts to provide, at the minimum: three spins around the perimeter of Camden Yards, two overpriced seafood meals at Harborplace and one tour of the National Aquarium.

Well, one out of three isn't bad. A trip to the aquarium doesn't have to be torture, especially if you time the lines right and get the kids interested in doing a little research ahead of time. Here are three books to keep on hand for guests.

* "The Aquarium Take-Along Book," by Sheldon L. Gerstenfeld V.M.D., illustrated by Paul Harvey (Puffin paperback, $5.99, 104 pages, ages 7-10) is the best of the bunch. It's a fine sequel to Dr. Gerstenfeld's "Zoo Clues: Making the Most of Your Visit to the Zoo."

The author has a knack for explaining complicated subjects in clear, colorful terms, and he does it without talking down to the reader. For example:

The [lobster] shell is like a suit of armor. It contains the mineral calcium and is very hard. Green "color factories" called chromatophores give the lobster its greenish color. Live lobsters are brownish green. Cooked lobsters are red. Lobsters are boiled alive. . . . People probably would not cook lobsters if lobsters could scream.

We learn that some sharks will grow, use and lose more than 2,000 teeth a year; that a shark can detect one drop of blood in 100,000 gallons of water; that aquarium workers grow very fond of octopuses and are sad when a female lays her 80,000 eggs because it means she'll soon die; and that a clam has a foot, but an oyster doesn't.

There are vital statistics on everything from horseshoe crabs to puffins to pinnipeds (seals, sea lions and walruses). But the stats aren't standardized, which is too bad. At least the basics -- size, life span and reproduction facts -- should be included for each species featured.

Dr. Gerstenfeld would rather use the space to tell us that sharks have eaten crocodiles, horses, cows, dogs, cats, bicycles and torpedoes. Each chapter includes the "veterinarian's behind-the-scenes info," tidbits such as: fractures in a water turtle's shell can be repaired with fiberglass; and mirrors encourage puffins to breed because they like company, and the mirrors make a small colony look crowded. Stuff like that adds color that makes encyclopedia entries pale in comparison.

* Aliki is one of the most talented writers of nonfiction for kids. Her dinosaur books are classic introductions to those prehistoric favorites, and from "Mummies Made in Egypt" to "How a Book Is Made," her work almost always sparks -- and satisfies -- curiosity.

She was in Baltimore a couple of years ago doing research for "My Visit to the Aquarium" (HarperCollins, $15, 32 pages, ages 4-8). The aquarium in the book is an amalgam of several she visited. It includes many exhibits from the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, most notably the giant kelp forest and the sea otter play area in the bay out back.

Aliki's illustrations -- pen-and-ink with watercolors -- are detailed without being intimidating. She identifies various fish with labels in cursive writing. The pictures are accompanied by clear text:

There were busy fish that never stopped working. Some poked around for food with their long noses. A parrotfish with strong, beak-like teeth broke off coral to find food inside. A blowfish puffed up for protection, and jawfish buried themselves in sand.

Like all of Aliki's books, this one is filled with kids of all races and kids with disabilities.

* "Don't Tease the Guppies" by Pat Lowery Collins, illustrated by Marylin Hafner (Putnam, $14.95, ages 4-8), is fiction. Jon, who's 8 or 9, takes his younger brother, Tim, to the aquarium. Tim can't read, but he interprets each sign they pass to his own liking.

For instance, "Do Not Feed the Seals" becomes "Here Are the Seals" when Tim reads it. Jon corrects him every time, but that doesn't keep Tim from getting into trouble.

He goes through a door labeled "Keep Out" and finds himself locked in a room full of dead fish, dead seals and a dead porcupine. When an annoyed worker finally comes with the key, it turns out Tim has been in a closet with wet mops and brushes -- and an active imagination.

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