Lately, my son’s been really into manatees. He constantly draws the gentle giants and cuddles his stuffed manatee. He designed an intricate board game involving boat collisions and seagrass meadows (think of it as Life, but for manatees).
So when J.B. Moonstar’s Michelle and the Missing Manatee (4 Horseman Publications, 2022) drifted into our lives, the mood was, you might say, pretty buoyant. And while I myself would probably prefer to get my sirenian fix from weightier tomes like Craig Pittman’s Manatee Insanity, my son loved the book. And that’s what matters.
Changing the Story
Author J.B. Moonstar moved to Florida in her teens, and quickly grew to love the state’s diverse and extraordinary wildlife. And while she’s passionate about environmental conservation, she is often dismayed by the negative messaging so frequently heard from conservation groups working to protect endangered species.
“I dislike reading from Defenders of Wildlife and other organizations,” she says. “I want animals to have a happy ending, and kids to realize there is something you can do to help.”
Her solution? Write stories designed for middle-grade readers that show positive ways to address the environmental crisis.
Such was the origin of her Ituria Chronicles, a series which centers on mythical creatures living in lunar caves who intervene to help Earth kids rescue earth’s endangered animals from dangers like poachers. A notes section at the close of each volume connects the story to challenges that real-world animals face.
In Michelle and the Missing Manatee, our eponymous protagonist saves a juvenile manatee caught in a hurricane. The youngling had been orphaned by a seagrass die-back, much like the real one that contributed to a record 841 Florida manatee deaths in the first half of 2021. With the assistance of a dragon disguised as a boy, a mermaid who lives in the river next to her home, and a charmed amulet that transforms her into a mermaid, she is successful.
I’ll confess that, at first, the fantastical premise of the story didn’t sit well with me. Given the massive scale of the climate crisis our kids are facing, do we really want to hand them stories in which fantastical beings come magically from the sky (or the water) to our rescue? Shouldn’t environmental fiction be a tad bit more… serious?
But then I took off my adult glasses for a while. I started to see that the story was, under these details, quite serious. For instance, we learn early in the book that Michelle has recently lost her father in a terrible accident. Then her mother has to leave as the storm approaches because she’s a first responder. This girl faces a crisis of trust big enough to swamp any adult. While her magical friends can’t fix that, they do help her find the courage to trust in herself, and the compassion to help the people (or critters) around her.
Two valuable tools for any young eco-warrior.
My son, for his part, needed no such convincing. Mermaids and dragons are simply two more beings in a world where most animals are still pretty magical.
Arts All Around!
The Gabber Newspaper covers live theater and art across South Pinellas and, when we find something worth the drive, in the Tampa Bay and Sarasota areas.