I recently had the chance to read and enjoy IF SHARKS DISAPPEARED, a debut picture book from Lilly Williams.
The publisher's description reads like this:
A healthy ocean is home to many different kinds of animals. They can be
big, like a whale,
tiny, like a shrimp,
and even scary, like a shark.
Even though sharks can be scary, we need them to keep the oceans healthy. Unfortunately, due to overfishing, many shark species are in danger of extinction, and that can cause big problems in the oceans and even on land.
What would happen if this continued and sharks disappeared completely?
Artist Lily Williams explores how that would affect other animals on the whole planet in this clever book about the importance of keeping sharks, and our oceans, healthy.
The thing I like most about this book is how effectively Lily illustrates the web that connects sharks to other marine animals and what results can likely follow if the balance is disrupted. Because, I mean, really... how much would change if sharks disappeared completely?
It turns out a whole lot would change. Being able to explore this impact through the deliberate pacing of the text and scened illustrations provides time for each new wave of "if this... then that" to settle in.
And with that information settling in, it quickly becomes apparent that no matter what your preference may be toward sharks, the role they play in a balanced ecosystem is critical. Coming from experience, these causal factors and the relative magnitude of their effects can be difficult for children to fully conceive. How does one imagine the downfall of an entire species, let alone the rampant succession of life in its place?
Here's where Williams' pacing really takes stage. Each spread holds an idea for the reader to grasp. A page turn brings us deeper into the exploration, all the while guided by steady-handed narrator. There are pages like the one above that grab the attention and show us a sight we may not have been able to imagine.
And through it all, we see connection affirmed from one species to the next one circumstance to the next. Sometimes these connections lead toward outcomes we want to avoid, but in the end the connections lead toward hope and our ability as stewards to help protect our Earth and all the things living in and on it.
The book includes some nice back matter as well, including this glossary. I included it not just because I think it's a pretty great glossary, but also because I think it shows off the sophistication of the text in this book. Imagine a Kindergartener being exposed to this rich, complex vocabulary! It's an awesome thing when a book can be written with the youngest learners in mine while still respecting the reader as a learner who is capable of absorbing new words, concepts, and ideas.
A lot went into making this story and I'm grateful to have had the chance to ask Lily Williams, author illustrator of IF SHARKS DISAPPEARED, all about what drew her to sharks, why she chose to write about climate change, and what brought her to connecting with young learners.
Hi, Lily! Thanks for coming by to share!
What was your journey like from picture book reader to picture book maker?
I have always been an avid reader and artist, but I never thought I could put the two together so I focused on art. Then in a roundabout way I found my path into picture books while majoring in Animation when I received an email from my editor, Emily. I always wanted to write YA novels (I still do!) so writing books was something I had only dreamed about as a distant concept.
What first got you thinking about sharks?
I always have loved sharks and I have been a big fan of watching shark documentaries. One time I was watching a shark documentary and they said something along the lines of “sharks are necessary”, but they didn’t explain it further. Then the documentary ended and I was left with “why are sharks necessary”? So I set out to answer that question for myself.
How or when did IF SHARKS DISAPPEARED become an idea for a picture book?
I ended up answering my “why are sharks necessary” question by doing research and compiling it into three infographics that went viral. Those WHAT HAPPENS WHEN SHARKS DISAPPEAR infographics swam onto the screen of my editor at Macmillan, who reached out to me and asked me to write a picture book. Until that moment, writing picture books seemed very far out of my grasp of things I could do.
Can you walk us through your process of making the book?
First, I like to start with a question. For IF SHARKS DISAPPEARED that question was “what happens to the world if sharks disappeared?”
Then I set out and collect as much research as I can to answer the question. For IF SHARKS DISAPPEARED ended up volunteering with San Francisco nonprofit Shark Stewards, attending shark lectures, and reading ocean health research papers. Varied sources are important for information collecting! Once I have found the answer, I start plotting the information out like a puzzle, taking bits and pieces and sticking them together until they make sense. This process took me three years for IF SHARKS DISAPPEARED, even after I had made the infographics and a short film on the topic called FINconceivable.
For me, text and visuals sort of pair hand and hand. Even while I am just writing words on paper, I am brainstorming all the possible artwork that goes along with it. Often I write notes of what I want the art to be next to the lines that will be in the book.
Eventually I add artwork. Then there is a lot of back and forth between my editor, art director, and I as we make the book the best it can be. Until finally… you can buy the book at your local bookstore!
What do you hope readers will see or take away from your work?
I started this whole journey to save sharks, so I hope that it inspires readers to want to save sharks. After that, I hope it inspires them to ask big questions and use their voice and skills to help a cause to better our world.
What are you working on next?
I have wrapped IF POLAR BEARS DISAPPEARED which comes out in August 2018. Right now I am working on IF ELEPHANTS DISAPPEARED which is the third installment of my IF… DISAPPEARED companion picture books. And I am also working on a graphic novel called GO WITH THE FLOW (First Second, 2019), which is very exciting and fun!
What recent book or artist are you sharing with friends most often?
Last year I read so many good books -- so I have four books I have been recommending and sharing nonstop! The first is THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas. This book should be required reading for everyone. The second is the DORY FANTASMAGORY series by Abby Hanlon, which I love so much. The third is HOW TO BE AN ELEPHANT by Katherine Roy -- what a beautiful and informative book! And finally the fourth is REAL FRIENDS by Shannon Hale. I laugh, cry, and feel so many things when I reread this book.
Thanks for coming by and sharing IF SHARKS DISAPPEARED with us, Lily!
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