Ocean Speaks: Marie Tharp and the Map That Moved the Earth – by Jess Keating, illustrated by Katie Hickey, Tundra books, 2020
Virginia Woolf famously wrote that a woman author who lacked money and a dedicated space would likely be denied that opportunity to write. In Jess Keating and Katie Hickey’s new picture book, cartographer and geologist Marie Tharp (1920-2006) struggled against the men dominating her profession, who refused her access to the ocean floor. Yet even their obtuse prejudice could not ultimately prevent this brilliant woman from mapping the ocean floor and visualizing continental drift for a skeptical world. Young readers who may be unfamiliar with the concept that, in Tharp’s time, “…girls were not supposed to dream of becoming scientists or explorers,” but Keating’s text’s dramatic examples and Hickey’s stunning artwork together construct a vivid illustration of this frustrating, but not defining, truth.
The book explains Tharp’s devotion to pursuing her career as a combination of her fascination with the physical environment from a young age, and a sharp intellect. Even as a little girl, Marie was drawn to “The ocean, stretched out before her, like a big mystery.” Barefoot in the sand, wearing oversized glasses, she looks towards the water with mystic intensity. The image also emphasizes how small she is in relation to the universe; this ratio does not discourage her.
Soon she and her equally nerdy dad, a fortunate appearance in some young women’s lives, are looking at specimens in his lab, a place so stuffed with treasures that it seems like a dream come true. The random assortment of plants, maps, petri dishes and bell jars, pops out in Hickey’s signature combination of earth and jewel tones. Father and daughter both use magnifying glasses in addition to their huge eyeglasses, a comic and touching sign of their mutual devotion to knowledge.
School is not so good for Marie. She manages to turn art class into her opportunity to experiment with sketches, but the mockery of some undoubtedly jealous boys in her classroom as she constructs her own engineering model would deter a less determined young scientist. A woman teacher who has obviously internalized male prejudice stares down sternly at Marie; although a girl in the next seat looks as if she is confused about who is right, Marie or her tormentors.
When World War II forces some flexibility about gender roles as men go off to fight, Marie finds an opportunity to focus on scientific pursuits. Hickey’s two-page spread of Tharp drawing equations on a huge blackboard is pure poetry, of an accessible kind. Children reading the book see the young woman poised on a stepstool on one foot, the other lifted to the side like that of a ballet dancer. The breadth of her approach allows her to make breakthroughs: “She discovered geodes and geometry, equations and elements, atoms and antimatter.” At bottom left and right of the scene are stacks of books indicating Tharp’s true love of the mind; there are volumes of Darwin, Einstein, and Aristotle, as well as William James and Upton Sinclair. (If your child or student is not familiar with these names, here is a terrific chance to introduce them!). One pile of book is topped by a globe, the other by a coffee pot and cup. Science doesn’t happen outside of the real world.
Tharp’s room of her own is a job in a laboratory. Having been denied the opportunity, as a woman, to participate in an exploration of the ocean, she uses the space of her “tiny, cramped office” to study, calculate, and hypothesize. Keating and Hickey take a risk, combining Tharp’s actual work with her dreams. Their imagery is totally effective, combining the scientific process and pure imagination in pictures of Tharp swimming through ink and dreaming of numbers.
She succeeds in mapping the ocean’s floor, and her reward is the hostility of a mansplaining colleague who ridicules her work. Eventually she is vindicated; a detailed “Author’s Note” explains how Tharp’s pioneering work was eventually acknowledged and led to the discovery of tectonic plates. This section also includes “Questions and Answers,” including one about why women were excluded from scientific professions, and a list of further resources. Ocean Speaks speaks to readers about many subjects: science, persistence, prejudice, love of learning. The exceptional beauty of its images transmits those ideas in a way which children will understand.