When children finish reading “Kupe and the Corals,” author Jacqueline L. Padilla-Gamiño, an assistant biology professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH), hopes they understand that “we’re all connected” to life in the ocean and that all living things “need to be careful with one another.”
“Kupe and the Corals” (Taylor Trade Publishing, August 2014) is written for children 8 to 12 years old. It is the story of Kupe, a boy on a voyage to discover and learn about the coral reef in the coastal waters near his home in Tahiti and its connection to a host of sea animals. The book was funded by a $25,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) as part of its Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network Schoolyard Book Series, which seeks to engage and educate children in narrative form about the type of research being conducted through the LTER.
One night while fishing with his father, Kupe observes countless tiny bubbles rising to the surface of the water. He captures the “strange pink bubbles” in an old jar. Later, he learns from a villager that they are tiny coral eggs. As Kupe’s adventure continues, he discovers the eggs, which have turned into larvae, are essential to the survival of the coral and the sea life that depends on it. With his new-found knowledge, Kupe happily returns the larvae to the sea.
“‘Kupe and the Corals’ provides a good opportunity for kids to interact with mom and dad. It’s not just a nice story; it’s one written with an ecological message,” said Padilla-Gamiño, who began teaching biology at CSUDH in fall 2014. “I think that’s the beauty of children’s books; the idea of sharing with your family, but also sending a message such as what an ecological system is. The book is also about teaching children that we are all linked and connected in some way. It’s a very important message that children should be learning.”
Padilla-Gamiño felt it was most important in the book to emphasize for young readers the fragility of coral reefs and ocean ecosystems.
“Many people don’t know that corals are actually alive, and that they reproduce and produce eggs,” she said. “This is important knowledge to pass on since corals are very fragile and only produce eggs a couple times a year.”
Padilla-Gamiño is no stranger to the physiology of corals or the dangers coral species experience worldwide due to human contact and pollution. She earned her Ph.D. in oceanography at the University of Hawai’i and conducted her postdoctoral research at UC Santa Barbara. Her graduate research focused on the eco-physiology of algae and reproductive biology of reef-building corals. Her doctoral field research was done on Moorea Island in French Polynesia, one in a chain of islands called the Society Islands, which includes Tahiti.
As a postdoctoral researcher, she worked on the effects of global change (temperature and ocean acidification) on the development of marine organisms.
Padilla-Gamiño wrote and managed the production of the book over a six-year period while working on her Ph.D. “Kupe and the Corals” is one of six books—written by different authors—that have been published to date through the LTER.
The grant included a writer salary for Padilla-Gamiño and funding to pay for the illustrator (Marjorie Leggitt), which took the lion’s share of the grant since some of the illustrations in the book cost up to $3,000, according to Padilla-Gamiño. Also covered were editorial services and printing the books. Most of the proceeds from the sale of the book, which is available on Amazon.com, go to the NSF.
“I’ve always wanted to write a children’s book. When I was working in Tahiti, I came across a request for proposal to write one. So I put together a grant application, and I got it,” said Padilla-Gamiño. “The first draft was the most fun. The original idea was the larvae would talk and go on an adventure. When I submitted it to the committee they really liked the idea, but I later found out that LTER books have to be scientifically accurate, that I couldn’t have talking coral, so I modified it.”
Padilla-Gamiño’s current research is on environmental effects on organismal function and the consequences of their physiological and evolutionary responses to global change. In the field and in the laboratory, she researches organisms’ capacities to respond to their environments and physiological mechanisms’ underlying ecological patterns.
“Pollution in the water can hurt corals, which is what I studied: how sedimentation can affect the reproduction or capacity to create eggs,” she said. “I did find that Montipora Capitata [known as rice coral in Hawai’i] is not affected by pollutants in sedimentation unless the pollution is substantial, which was nice to discover.”
Padilla-Gamiño is also interested in “scientific communication,” not just within the scientific community, but within the countries and communities in which she conducts research, so that her findings may be applied to conservation and resource management issues there.
“Sometimes kids would come into the lab [on Moorea Island]. They were very curious, which was great to see. But over the years, I have I noticed that some scientists who go conduct research in these beautiful places, and later publish it, do not connect with anyone local in any way,” she said. “There’s often no feedback or interaction with the community. Some scientists believe that it’s not necessary, but I don’t agree. What happens is the local people don’t know what they were studying and don’t learn how that research may help their communities.”
Padilla-Gamiño believes “Kupe and the Corals” addresses this scientist/community disconnect issue to some extent by being published in Tahitian—and French, Spanish, Hawaiian and English—and distributed for sale in Tahiti through a community leader.
Since “Kupe and the Corals” was published, Padilla-Gamiño has had a child of her own: a 16-month-old daughter.
“In a couple of years I will read Kupe to her. It’s funny. When I first started [working on “Kupe and the Corals”] six years ago, I didn’t have children,” she said. “Now that I have a baby, suddenly—to me anyway—it’s super cool being an author of a children’s book.”