Star of the Sea: A day in the life of a starfish
Written by Janet Halfmann; illus. by Joan Paley
32 pages, for ages 5-9
Henry Holt/Christy Ottaviano Books, 2011
I’ve been carrying this book with me for three months and can’t put it down. I love the bold colors and textures of the collage artwork. I love that the main character is a starfish – a lowly critter that moves about on tube feet and extrudes its stomach into clams. What I love best is that the narrative arc of the book follows the rhythm of the tides. Which makes sense, because tides dictate the daily life of a starfish.
“As the high tide rushes in, Sea Star crawls onto the shore to hunt,” Janet Halfmann writes. We learn the secrets of how tube feet work, how starfish moves by twisting her body like a pretzel. Life is different when your mouth is on your underside, Halfmann points out.
When Sea Star reaches the mussel bed she “hunches over a big mussel and grips its two shells with her strong feet.” Sea Star pulls on the shells to open them; mussel pulls on the shells to keep them closed. It’s a real tug-of-war, but Sea Star gets her supper. Unfortunately the tide has turned and she is stranded on shore – easy prey for a hungry gull. She manages to escape, losing one of her arms (rays) in the process… and makes it back home when the tide returns.
Halfmann lives in Wisconsin, so how did she get inspired to write about sea stars?
“I have written other stories about the sea and its creatures and have always been fascinated by sea stars,” she says. “I think it’s because of their star shape and their many colors and designs. Somehow, they seem almost magical!”
When Halfmann started researching sea stars for her story, she found them to be more amazing than she’d imagined. She learned that sea stars can hunt only underwater – because they use hundreds of tiny, water-powered feet to move.
“When hunting on the shore, they have to wait till the tide comes in,” Halfmann says. “I also was surprised to learn that the sea star’s mouth is on its underside.”
Ironically, when she wrote the story Halfmann hadn’t yet met a sea star up-close-and-personal. So she relied on accounts of scientists. Since writing the story, however, she’s made the acquaintance of an ochre sea star – the star of her story – at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California.
“I made sure to investigate every part,” Halfmann said, “its tube feet, its mouth, its spines, the small hole where water enters on its top side. I felt like I and this sea star shared a special bond.” Now she doesn’t have to travel so far to visit – there’s an aquarium in her hometown of Milwaukee.
In her book, Halfmann has a hungry gull picking up Sea Star for supper. Otters and some fish eat sea stars, she says. But on the shore, the sea star is top predator.
“Other seashore animals are deathly afraid of the sea star,” Halfmann said. “They try to get away fast when they sense a sea star nearby.”