Obsessive About Octopuses

Authored by Owen Davey
Illustrated by Owen Davey
Published by Flying Eye

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Flying Eye (the children’s imprint of Nobrow) has developed a well-deserved reputation for producing beautifully designed books, with trademark noncoated papers and innovative printing processes. They have positively influenced the children’s nonfiction market with education publishers emulating some of Nowbrow’s features.

In the Flying Eye portfolio, Owen Davey’s ‘About’ series each featuring a different animal species has acquired many fans, and it’s easy to see why. The books are beautiful and Obsessive about Octopuses is no exception. The fluidity of the octopus shape, the brilliance of colour and the geometric patterning are a gift for an illustrator with Davey’s talent. But how do they stand up as nonfiction books for children? In this review, I will highlight the outstanding features of these desirable books, but also point out some areas where they could be made even better as books intended for younger readers.

First, the strengths, illustration and visual design are obvious; each page is a delight to the eye.  Illustration and photography can reveal a subject in different ways.  The magnificent endpapers of this book exemplify one of the things that illustration can do well. Davey’s analytical approach to shape is reminiscent of Charlie Harper’s ‘minimal realism.’ He captures the essence of the octopus rather than attempting photographic realism. And he has a panache for colour which persists in the visual memory even when the book is no longer in front of you. The hot pinks, oranges, reds and yellows that dominate the book turn the octopus into the glam rock star of the ocean. One particularly memorable spread uses a palette of teal, yellow, black and white to demonstrate how the mimic octopus disguises itself as a damselfish, banded sole and a venomous sea snake using variation in its striped patterning and body shape.

The text is genuinely absorbing. The language is pitched at readers from age 9+; there is a lot of information that will be new to young and old alike. I learnt a lot of fascinating things about octopuses that I just had to keep sharing with my family: Did you know that an octopus really builds a garden? I thought that was just a Beatles song. Did you know that octopuses are smart and they can escape from tanks in aquariums and have learnt how to short circuit the electrics by squirting water at light bulbs? Amazing, eh?

It’s also great that the text is not condescending. Scientific terminology is used throughout, and on the whole, the explanations are integrated into the text so that most experienced readers will understand the terms. For example, ‘Most species of octopus live a ‘benthic’ lifestyle, meaning they live on the sea floor.’ (p10). And ‘Sexual dimorphism is when males and females of the same species look different to one another – and no two octopuses look more dissimilar than the common blanket octopus male and female.’ (p28).

Another positive is the way ideas are made more concrete by relating them to a reader’s experience. ‘Gait’ is explained using human movement as an example. The scale of the Giant Pacific Octopus is pictured in relation to a human diver. A 20cm scale is used to indicate the comparative sizes of different octopuses

So far, so good. The negatives are small, but significant nevertheless, especially in a book written for children. As mentioned above, the inclusion of scientific language is positive, but there’s no pronunciation guide in this text. Teachers will know that strange-looking, long words can be off-putting for some readers. Examples in the book include cephalopod, papillae, aposematism and bioluminescence. Bracketed pronunciation or the inclusion of a glossary can be informative and extend learning for young readers without them having to resort to other sources.

Generally, care has been taken to make it clear how the texts and images are related. In the interests of design, images are sometimes numbered to correspond with text labels so that the page retains integrity in the design. If this is an unfamiliar device, it makes a good teaching point. This works well in most places, but it is inconsistent. For instance, in the text below a list of prey is mentioned, and there is an illustration for each. However, you would already need to know what they are to work out, which is which. It’s an assumption that you can’t make for younger readers, even if most adults will work it out.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly are some of the choices made for font colour on backgrounds which make it a strain to read. For example, white text on a pale lavender can be challenging for readers with mild visual impairment. Pink on black can be hard to read when the font size is small. I understand this is one of the trade-offs made when trying to preserve the design of the book. It’s one that regularly confronts education publishers.

In summary, I loved the look and feel of the book, and we will include it in our Reading Journey selections.  I remain a fan of Owen Davey’s art, and I learnt a lot about Octopuses that I did not know before. Young readers will be attracted, I am sure, to this addition to the ‘About’ series and will be absorbed by its contents. With a few refinements, it could be perfect.

Other titles in this series

  • Mad About Monkeys
  • Smart About Sharks
  • Crazy About Cats
  • Bonkers About Beetles
  • Fanatical about Frogs