Glowing in the Deep

W.H. Beck writes a science book for children

Rob Reid

UNDER THE SEA. The glowing sucker octopus is one of 22 bioluminescent life forms featured in the book Glow.
UNDER THE SEA. The glowing sucker octopus is one of 22 bioluminescent life forms featured in the book Glow.

They glow to hunt. They glow to hide. They glow to find a friend. They glow to lose an enemy.”

Eau Claire children’s author W.H. Beck’s latest book, Glow, is a picture book with stunning colorful photographs on pitch-black backgrounds featuring “animals with their own night-lights.” Many creatures use bioluminescence to survive in their habitats. Beck features many of these animals: the crystal jellyfish, the glowing sucker octopus, the jewel squid, the gulper eel, the deep-sea Spanish dancer, and the scaly dragonfish to name a few. Some plants that glow, such as the foxfire mushroom, are also featured. All in all, children can read about 22 bioluminescent forms of life in 32 pages.

“They give it a ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ quality.” – W.H. Beck, on the photos of otherworldly bioluminescence creatures in her new book for children, Glow

Beck says that the book began eight years ago when she wrote the title in her online journal. It wasn’t until 2013 that she woke up and knew what to do with it. Glow is about 1,000 words long and can be read on two levels. There’s an almost poetic feel to the narrative: “They glow to trick. They glow to invite. They glow to call for help. They glow to fight back. They glow to daze … and dazzle.”

This style is designed to hook and captivate the youngest child. Each of these short sentences is followed with a deeper text full of detailed scientific information to appeal to slightly older kids: “Some dinoflagellates (di-noh-flah-jel-ates; tiny one-celled animals that float in the ocean) light up when the small copepods and shrimp that eat them swim through their water. Their glow spotlights the copepods and shrimp so that larger fish eat them – and the dinoflagellates stay safe.”

While Beck originally envisioned her project being illustrated, her editor thought photographs of the glowing animals and plants would be more visually appealing. Beck is in total agreement with this direction. “The photo illustrations are what make the book,” she says. “They give it a ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ quality. They were a great decision.” The publisher bought the stunning photographs from several sources. “Many of them were purchased from the scientists themselves because they are the only ones who have seen many of these organisms in real life,” she says. Seeing the photographs for the first time also inspired several revisions of the manuscript between Beck and her editor. “My editor at one point in the process said that she had 647 emails just about this manuscript in her files,” she says. The next step in the evolution of the book was to have an expert in the field of bioluminescence fact-check the manuscript. The publisher hired Dr. Edith Widder, a marine biologist and MacArthur “genius” grant winner, to vet the rough draft.

Beck has authored two acclaimed novels for children (Malcolm at Midnight and Malcolm Under the Stars) and previously published a children’s science series on the food chain. When asked if she always enjoyed science, Beck said, “When I was a kid, I was not a science person at all. But the older I got, the more I marvel about the natural world around us.” As a librarian, she knows that for some aspects of nature, such as bioluminescence, there simply aren’t many books on the subjects for those school kids interested.

Glow works well with elementary-school age children as well as anyone who is fascinated by beautiful, haunting photographs of unique and unusual creatures. And Glow has already received “glowing reviews.” Wall Street Journal says, “The creatures in this arresting book are, in the oldest and best sense of the phrase, totally awesome.” The Bulletin states, “With this dual layered text, Beck invites very young listeners to enjoy the stunning view as they learn the rudiments of bioluminescence.”

Readers can see more of the story behind the book at

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Rob Reid  author

Rob Reid is a senior lecturer of education studies at UW-Eau Claire. In addition to writing Children’s Jukebox (ALA Editions 1995/2007), Reid has also written two more books about children’s music: Something Musical Happened at the Library (ALA Editions, 2007) and Shake and Shout: 16 Noisy, Lively S

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