Saludos todos! This week we are continuing our theme of nature in celebration of this month’s Earth Day with another great read. The Shark and the Parrotfish and Other Caribbean Fables, written by Mario Picayo and illustrated by Cherise Ward is a lovely collection of fables that take place in various parts of the Caribbean, incorporating characters based on all of the region’s abundant and diverse flora and fauna. This book is perfect for this month’s theme as it embraces many of nature’s wonders, while also anthropomorphizing animals and insects, reminding us of our closeness to nature, and helping readers sympathize with many species’ current plight of habitat destruction and resource scarcity. The setting of the Caribbean is also conducive for this month’s discussions on climate change, conservation, and eco-friendly living, as this region of the world, arguably one of the most beautiful and biodiverse, has also been one of the most affected by environmental exploitation, species extinction, and ecological destruction. Furthermore, as explained in the introduction of this book, each story is a fable, meaning that it contains a moral or a lesson to readers. As we take this month to reflect on the state of our planet and many of its glorious ecosystems, let us also reflect on the moral of this collection as a whole, as well as all of this month’s books: to save our ecosystems, care for our planet, and live responsibly.
In a note to the reader at the beginning of the book, the author introduces the genre of the fable, and explains many of the fable’s characteristics, such as being passed down from generation to generation, and usually including a moral or a lesson for the reader: “A fable is a story, but it is a special kind of story that teaches a lesson. We call that lesson a moral. Many fables are about animals and plants that talk and act like people.” The author also explains how Aesop is one of the most well-known fable-writers, but how this collection, rather than focusing on a European or African heritage, like many of Aesop’s stories, focuses on the Caribbean: “But I was born in the Caribbean, not in Africa or Europe, so my stories don’t have lions, foxes, or grapevines. Mine have mongooses, genip trees, and sharks.” Here we see how the fables’ focus on the Caribbean’s diverse flora and fauna is not only something that makes these fables so fascinating and intriguing, but also something that makes them distinctly Caribbean. In other words, our natural surroundings are not just a matter of environmental concern, but also of cultural identity, patrimony, and heritage. When we jeopardize and endanger earth’s species and the natural habitats of the world, we stand to lose not only our rich ecosystems, but also our culture, our national identities, memories, and ways of life.
The collection is composed of 12 different fables that are about a page in length. Each story is accompanied by a lively, colorful, and oftentimes humorous illustration. Although the stories are rather short, the language of the text can appear a bit dense for younger readers. Thus, this collection would be perfect for challenging older readers or for reading aloud. Each story also concludes with “Fun Facts,” usually about the animals or ecosystems found in the story. The “Fun Facts,” along with the moral(s) of each story make this collection and its various fables educational in more ways than one.
The first fable, The Hermit Crab and the Octopus, is about an old hermit crab who has lost his shell. As explained in the “Fun Facts” section of the story, this is typical of hermit crabs: “Like in the story, hermit crabs move from one shell to another as they get bigger.” The hermit crab in the story knows that his shell is getting old, and he’s going to need a new one soon, but before he can make that decision, a big wave comes and knocks his shell right off. The hermit crab, in a panic, starts crying out: “’Oh, no! My shell is gone! What am I going to do?’” But just as he is starting to slip into more of a panic, a big octopus comes up and offers the hermit crab his help. The big octopus, using his many tentacles, starts to dive down into the water looking for the hermit crab’s shell. Eventually the octopus finds the hermit crab’s shell, and the hermit crab is overjoyed: “’Why do you like this old shell?’ asked the octopus. “Because it is mine,’ said the old hermit crab. ‘I would rather sleep in my old shell than in a brand-new one that might belong to somebody else.’” The octopus, moved by the hermit crab’s honesty and humility, decides to reward the hermit crab with an additional gift. He dives down deep into the ocean again and this time comes back up with a beautiful bright blue and gold shell that he gives to the hermit crab as a gift.
The moral of each fable is written clearly at the bottom of the story in bold, red letters. The moral for The Hermit Crab and the Octopus is: “Honesty should be its own reward, but sometimes it is also rewarded by others.” However, each fable is also rife with a variety of morals and lessons, some small and intimate and others larger and symbolic. As a valuable exercise for students in both emotional development and analytical thinking, teachers could ask their students to identify other possible morals of each story. Although most of the morals identified by the author at the end of the story deal with interpersonal relationships and individual values, one could easily identify a variety of morals that speak to climate change, the environment and conservation. For example, when the hermit crab admits that he loves his old shell because it is his home, he is exercising honesty, but he is also reminding young readers of the importance of animals’ homes and habitats, and the pain and sadness that they endure when their homes are threatened or destroyed. Furthermore, the beginning of this fable illustrates the scene of the beautiful Caribbean: “An old hermit crab, who had not visited the ocean since he was young, decided to walk to a nearby reef and smell the sea air.” Here we are once again reminded of how the environment and the natural wonders of the world are also closely associated with our personal lives, our memories, family traditions and cultural identities, but the mention of the “nearby reef” also reminds us of the Caribbean’s magnificent and world-famous coral reefs.
In recent years the amazing reefs of the Caribbean have come very close to extinction. The Caribbean coral reefs are part of a complex ecosystem of marine life that both sustain the life of the reefs and depend on the reefs for their own sustenance and survival. According to an article by The Guardian, “Caribbean coral reefs ‘will be lost within 20 years’ without protection,” “Most Caribbean coral reefs will disappear within the next 20 years unless action is taken to protect them, primarily due to the decline of grazers such as sea urchins and parrotfish, a new report has warned. A comprehensive analysis by 90 experts of more than 35,000 surveys conducted at nearly 100 Caribbean locations since 1970 shows that the region’s corals have declined by more than 50%.” While the old hermit crab talks about his old shell as his home, this language about the importance of home and habitat can also be read as a larger metaphor for the Caribbean coral reefs and the marine-life ecosystem as a whole. Without the reefs, many plants and animals would no longer have a home and would soon too face extinction.
All in all, this book is a wonderful resource for teaching children about the fable genre, and about the fragile ecosystems of the Caribbean—highly recommended!
For those of you interested in using this book and its themes in the classroom, here are some additional resources:
- Moorea Coral Reef Long Term Ecological Research Program, Paper Plate Fishes Lesson Plan, elementary
- Digital Coast NOAA, lesson plans on Coral Reef Habitat, grade 3
- NOAA Coral Reef Information System, collection of lesson plans on coral reefs, grades K-12
- Discovery Education, Habitats of the World lesson plan, grades K-5
Stay tuned for more great reads!
Images Modified from: The Shark and the Parrotfish, pages 3, 6, 8, 13, 15