Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau by Jennifer Berne, illustrated by Eric Puybaret   

2008. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

Genre: Biography

Ages: Grades 1 through 4


This is Jennifer Berne’s first picture book–and it’s a stunner. In a simple, clear, and concise manner, Berne tells the story of an imaginative boy who longed for a way to explore the ocean he loved–and wound up inventing an aqua lung and refurbishing the old Navy ship that would become world-famous: Calypso. The story opens with a poem that celebrates Cousteau the adult diver, then shifts back to his early childhood, moving quickly through highlights of his life. We discover that Cousteau was artistic–and an avid young film maker. But above all, he loved the ocean and its creatures–and longed to make films that would take everyone into the magical underwater world that had so captivated him. Graceful, soft illustrations by Eric Puybaret perfectly complement lyrical prose that borders at times on the poetic. As a nonfiction book, Manfish is excellent for teaching ideas and sparking conversations on research. But don’t overlook it for sentence fluency. Notice the variety and the incredibly adept use of fragments (particularly in the section describing undersea creatures). Though the book is too short to provide an in-depth look at Cousteau’s remarkable life, it does provide a beautiful and enticing introduction sufficient to pique the curiosity of any young readers enchanted by the idea of sailing, snorkeling, diving, or studying marine life.

In the Classroom

1. Talk about Jacques Cousteau. How many of your students have heard of him–or know who he was? You might wish to look up some basic information: where he was born and when, how long he lived, and so forth. Some students may wish to do more extensive research and write further about Cousteau’s life and work.

2. Ask who has heard of Cousteau’s famous boat Calypso. To introduce this discussion, consider playing John Denver’s classic song “Calypso,” and talk about what might have motivated Denver to write such a song.

3. Ask if any of your students have been snorkeling or diving. What creatures do they recall seeing? Do any of them think this is something they might want to try? Are any interested in studying marine life as a hobby or occupation?

4. Share the book, taking time to notice and enjoy the illustrations. Do they seem to go well with a book about the sea? Why? What is special about the colors?

5. Where does the title Manfish come from? Do you think it’s a good title for a book about Jacques Cousteau? Why?

6. This author uses fragments very skillfully, but she does not use them throughout the book. Read it aloud a second time, and have students listen for fragments as you read. Can they pick out any? Is there are a part of the book where you hear many fragments? What effect do they have on readers? Though we are often told to write in complete sentences, are fragments in fact rhetorically effective at times?

7. Think about presentation. How would you describe the illustrations in the book. Are there pages that especially capture your attention? Why? There is one fold-out page in this book. Is it used effectively? What does it make us think about as readers?

8. Cousteau made many films about the ocean (a number are abailable through the Cousteau Society)–and additional films were made about him and his crew. You might search out one or two to further explore the life of this adventurer and film maker. These films may also prompt some students to write–about Cousteau himself, about his ship Calypso, or about the ocean.

9. If you are lucky enough to live close to an aquarium, schedule a visit. Observe the marine life there, and use what you learn as a basis for writing about particular sea creatures or ocean conservation.

10. What steps does your state take to protect ocean beaches–or rivers, lakes, or other bodies of water? Find out. Use what you learn to create persuasive essays–some of which could be shared with local newspapers or people in your state legislature.

11. Discuss the genres represented within this book. It is probably best described as a biography–but does it also contain elements of nonfiction? story? poetry? Does it work well to blend various forms of writing? Why?

12. Cousteau used film to capture what he cared about most: the sea. His body of work was largely informational–but surely served a persuasive purpose, too, for he wanted to convince all of us to care about the planet on which we live. If you have access to cameras, encourage students to use snapshots or video to film what they care about–and to enhance this visual record with a narrative or informational script, music, or poetry. Talk about how persuasive writing, like informational writing, can include many sub-genres.