Here is what Olenka looked like a few weeks after she was born.
Pretty darn invisible, no? Scientists call baby fish larvae. But baby eels have a special name, just like how baby cats are called kittens and baby dogs are puppies. A baby eel is called a leptocephalus (LEP-toe-SEF-a-lus), which means “slim head.” And believe me, leptocephali (LEP-toe-SEF-a-lie; that’s more than one) are paper-thin. They’re made mostly of jelly, which is transparent and almost invisible. Their organs are tiny and almost invisible. And they don’t have red blood cells, so their blood is completely invisible!
Baby Olenka is pretty well invisible inside this jar, and you know exactly where to look. But imagine trying to find her in a vast ocean. That’s what I call DOUBLE INVISIBILITY!
“The Superpower Field Guide” series of fascinating, fun and easy-to-read books continues with an extensive examination of the eel, another creature likely overlooked by many of us. In a familiar format well-established in the first three titles (Beavers, Moles and Ostriches, Eels is divided into 10 sections. But first, readers are introduced to Olenka, “an ordinary eel” who isn’t only super-powered but is also “truly, weirdly, deeply, fantastically mysterious”. Following a general discussion of her mysterious nature—with just enough tempting but unanswered questions to grasp readers’ attention—the 10 sections of superpowers begins. They include details of her unusual breathing abilities, advantages of her slime-protected skin, an explanation of her metamorphosis from young to adult stages, and the account of an amazingly long migration aided by smell and magnetoreception (with such new terms defined in the Glossary). A final page sums up the characteristics that suggest “such an animal couldn’t possibly exist.” By this point, however, readers will fully realize what an extraordinary creature this “plain, brown, slimy” animal really is.
Eels includes Quiz #1, a true or false test of eel facts included in the text, and Quiz #2, a Where’s Waldo-type illustrative eel search. The animated illustrations are a mix of ink, pencil and crayon, with some digital coloring added. The technique allows a good deal of flexibility for presentation of complex facts.
Besides giving readers a deeper than average look into the unique nature of some common animals, “The Superpower Field Guide” series shines for its enjoyable light-hearted, upbeat language. This style hasn’t changed from the first title, and, if a reader is following the series, by now it feels entirely accessible and comfortable. The humor enhances learning. Explanations are in-depth, with lots of comparisons to help with understanding. Of particular interest in this title is the history of a discovery by two scientists of the complete European eel life cycle and the fact that the baby eel looks nothing like the adult (a major feature of Olenka’s mystery). It also turns out that eels move between fresh and salt water during their lives, much like the more familiar salmon. This history lesson takes the form of a graphic-novel style insert of two double-spreads, perfect for showing the dedication that led to the scientists’ breakthrough.
After learning so much about this strange animal, readers may be dismayed to hear that European eels are critically endangered due to pollution, parasites, dams blocking migration rivers and human consumption: eels can be cooked and eaten in a wide variety of ways. It is sad to note this of the creature readers now appreciate as “Olenka, Migrating Mistress of Mystery!”
Prior to the list of “Further Eel Reading”, a website with an art collection inspired by eels, and a video, readers will be cheered by the promise that this captivating series will continue with additional titles about warthogs, termites and least weasels.
Gillian Richardson is a freelance writer living in British Columbia.