World without Fish by Mark Kurlansky, illustrated by Frank Stockton.  

2011. New York: Workman Publishing.

Genre: Nonfiction/informational/persuasive.

Ages: Upper elementary and older.


Mark Kurlansky, best-selling author of Cod, Salt, and The Big Oyster, offers a tour deforce plea for sustainable fishing in this striking book that seamlessly combines informational writing, research, persuasion, and graphic narratives. Kurlansky begins in a powerful way, by laying out the problem. While humans are definitely not trying to destroy the oceans (in fact, many are trying very hard not to), the combined effects of global warming, overfishing, and pollution could have (and are having) disastrous consequences, the likes of which are the stuff of sci fi horror films. Imagine a world without any fish at all, with sea waters turning from blues and greens to pinkish-orange–thanks to algal blooms, oceans toxic and alive with jelly fish–a world we can no longer enter. Not only could it happen, Kurlansky contends, but without rapid and forceful action, it will happen very soon. Within 50 years, he suggests, some of the fish we most commonly eat, including tuna and salmon, could be extinct. (Remember the orange roughie? Just one victim of over-fishing.) The book is a masterpiece of persuasive writing, filled with strong arguments and well-researched examples, and wrapping up with a call to action. The solution is not a simple one by any means, but as Kurlansky reminds us, it is “time to wake up and smell the fish.” Stockton’s trendy graphics mingle well with photos, sketches, and charts to create an eye catching layout younger readers will appreciate. The book also includes an outstanding resource list, a chart of “good choices” when it comes to fish consumption, and a list of things we can do to make a difference.

In the Classroom

1. Spend a few minutes just looking at the striking front cover of this book. What are the author and illustrator trying to suggest? What does the cover make you think of? Is this an appealing world–or not? Why?

2. The back cover poses a question: Can you imagine a world without fish? Ask your students this question. Can they imagine it? What’s the big deal anyway? If you don’t eat fish yourself, would it really make that much difference? What might the consequences be?

3.  This book runs 171 pages, minus the source list and other additions. That’s a lot to read aloud in the classroom. Yet, if you are teaching persuasive writing, you may want to consider summarizing individual chapters (no more than one or two per class session) and reading just a few paragraphs aloud from each chapter to show how masterfully Kurlansky sets up, expands and develops, and then closes his argument. (Students may, of course, want to read the entire book on their own.) Briefly, Kurlansky lays out the problem in the introduction, scares us a little with what could happen in Chapter 1, then offers examples and support for his view in the chapters that follow. He counters the opposition in Chapter 4, showing us why the ocean’s bounty isn’t endless after all. And he neatly dismisses easy sollutions in Chapter 7. In Chapter 8, he offers his own solution–but he doesn’t stop there. He reinforces the urgency of the problem with comments on pollution and global warming in Chapters 9 and 10–then ends with a bang in Chapter 11 by telling us what we, as individual consumers, can do about all this impending doom. Even by sharing well-chosen snippets of the whole, you can create an incredibly strong series of lessons on what it takes to persuade readers: how to begin, what to include, how to end.

4. Share all or some portion of the Introduction (“A Brief Outline of the Problem”) aloud. Is this a good way to begin a persuasive piece–by making the problem crystal clear? Why? How might this be a better way to begin than simply stating one’s position?

5. As you go through the book, whether you are reading large or small segments, take time to notice the presentation. What is particularly striking? What catches your students’ attention?

6. Notice the text that appears in large print–sometimes in both red and black. If a person were to go through this whole book reading JUST the large print, would he or she still get the basic argument this writer is trying to make? Is this a good technique? How do you suppose Kurlansky decides which words to put into large print–or is this partly an artistic decision?

7. Each chapter ends with a special feature: a graphic story of Kram and Ailat (Mark and Talia). Is it effective to shift into a completely different genre this way? Why? How does it affect readers psychologically to transition from informational or persuasive into narrative?

8. Read all or part of Chapter 1 (“Being a Short Exposition about What Could Happen and How It Would Happen”). What is the author’s purpose in putting this chapter early in his argument? Is it more effective up front than, say, at the end of the argument? Why? Notice the recipe for jellyfish salad on page 15. Why do you suppose the author included this? What point is he trying to make? What information from this chapter is most striking–or surprising?

9. Read all or part of Chapter 8 on sustainable fishing: Kurlansky’s proposed primary solution to the problem. Do your students feel this is a realistic solution? Why or why not? If they could purchase line caught fish for more money than net caught fish, would they do it? Would they suggest that others do it?

10. Before sharing any part of Chapter 11, ask students to suggest things they think the average consumer could do to reduce the likelihood of creating a world without fish. Is it hopeless? Or can we, as individuals, have an impact on our future? If so, what very specific things might we do? When you finish discussing this, read Chapter 11 or summarize Kurlansky’s suggestions to us. What suggestions do your students find most–or least–plausible? Or do they feel they can follow all of them?

11. Based on this book, do your students feel it is or is not a good idea to eat fish sticks? Have them write short persuasive paragraphs about this. When they finish, share some of the pieces, and take a survey to see what percentage of students feel strongly one way or the other. How might Kurlansky’s fish stick example relate to other choices we make as consumers? Should we consider the “true cost” of products we want–or is it always a good idea to buy them as cheaply as possible?

12. The underlying purpose behind a persuasive piece is to change the way people think or behave. On a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being the strongest), how would your students rate the likely impact of this book on people in their age group? How about people in their parents’ age group? Talk about this in light of the various persuasive strategies this writer uses. What works best? Is there anything more Kurlansky (or illustrator Frank Stockton) could have done to convince us?

13. Imagine Kurlansky’s book transformed into a film. What should the opening scene look like? How about the final scene? What portions of the book (e.g., history of fishing, possible transformation of the ocean, bottom fishing, pollution, and so on) should be included in such a film? Is this book too comprehensive to be filmed in its entirety? If so, what should be cut and what should be kept?

14. Consider posting a review of the book on or any other vendor’s website. You may wish to comment on the relative strengths of the book in terms of information, voice, presentation, and overall persuasive effectiveness.