I'm a Manatee

Includes book and CD by John Lithgow, illustrated by Ard Hoyt
Simon & Schuster; Books For Young Readers, New York 2003; ISBN: 0-689-85427-7; 32 pages, $17.95

"From time to time I dream that I'm a manatee, undulating underneath the sea." Actor John Lithgow's latest children's book explores the fantasy world of a young boy who wishes he were a manatee. As he lies in slumber dreaming, the world around him is transformed into a watery paradise.

Lithgow's tale is written in rhymes that will appeal to the youngest readers, with most words altered to end in -atee. "I'm a manatee, I'm a manatee, I keep my reputation spick and span-atee." But older readers will also surely appreciate Lithgow's lofty language: "Unshackled by the chains of idle vanity, A modest manatee, That's me."

The full-page color illustrations enhance the book immeasurably, with terrific graphics of the manatees dining with huge red bibs, coral, jelly fish, and other underwater companions, and the lad's room from which his bedtime adventure is launched. Many of the illustrations are brilliant in their subtlety: the boy's pet hamster slowly sprouts fins and eventually, an entire fish body; a grown-up manatee holds a mirror to the boy who sees his reflection as the young manatee he dreams he is; and there are even images of a child's drawing of a boy and a manatee on the boy's wall.

I'm a Manatee comes with a compact disc on which the story is set to music and sung by Lithgow. It is both fun and funny to listen to and will surely enhance the child's experience with the book. The sheet music and lyrics appear in the back of the book, perhaps for the instrumentally inclined who may wish to perform it themselves.

There is clearly a message about protecting the manatee in the book as well. The boy watches irately as a human discards bottles and cans from his boat into the water. The boy then ties the litter to a fishing line, which is eventually hauled up by the fisherman. Additionally, the boat's propeller-a huge danger for delicate manatees-frightens all the creatures below.

Lithgow who admits that he's never seen a wild manatee, notes in an interview that action must be taken to save wildlife: "I'm very concerned for the future of the earth and its amazing creatures. We've got to be careful and make sure we don't foul our own nest."

He has created a story that with its rhymes and pictures is quite hysterical and that humor helps reach his adolescent audience. Lithgow adds in the interview that "the manatee is such a wonderful animal, gentle, graceful, a little comical. It's important for everyone to know all about them. The more they know the better chances this great beast has of surviving."

John Lithgow's previous children's books include two releases in 2000: Micawber, about a creative Central Park squirrel who recreates the art of some of the masters of painting after seeing their works in a New York art museum; and Marsupial Sue, about a young kangaroo who couldn't stand all the bounding around that kangaroos do.

-by Adam M. Roberts

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