Scientists still grapple with the events that turned chemistry into biology and how mindless molecules could join forces to create creatures with a mind. The story of life started approximately 3.8 billion years ago from meager beginnings and a series of immensely improbable events. Energized by lightning bolts and asteroids, molecules from stardust, and volcanic ash replicated. By chance, droplets of lipids and fats ensnared those molecules to create the first protocells. For hundreds of millions of years, the grand experiment of life largely involved the development of single cells. At about 800 million years ago, single cells ventured into forming partnerships with each other. Cells then spent the next 200 million years developing into different types, each with specific and unique functions in the formation of simple, multicellular organisms.
At 542 to 520 million years ago, life finally discovered the rules of its own game. There was a prodigious eruption in the diversity of life known as the Cambrian explosion that fostered the invention of significant structures, such as tentacles, eyes, gills, legs, body armor, and tails. A product of trial and error, the progenitor of all animals with a backbone, including humanity, may have floated, swum, or crept in the ancient oceans of the Cambrian. Siona’s Tale is a scientific fantasy that journeys from the present to the past to meet our distant ancestor from the Cambrian— a wee, tiny sea creature.
Siona’s Tale an adventure in science and fiction, with one story line in the present and the other from hundreds of millions of years ago. In the present, an eleven year old human girl, Siona Seaton, fears the ocean and its pounding waves. Unfortunately, her mother, Dr. Seaton, is a marine biologist. Siona struggles to keep her fear a secret; she promised to never to tell her mother that she almost drowned in the ocean. The ocean is what her mother loves the most. Siona knows it would break her mother’s heart to learn that the ocean could be so cruel, like a “monster”.
The story in the past begins after Siona has a terrifying day collecting samples with her mother along the seashore. Dr. Seaton consoles her daughter with a story that started 521.2 million years ago. To Siona’s delight, the story is about a wee creature with the same name as her—Siona, the Sea Squirt. But because of her painful secret, she keeps her distance from her mother, even as they sit side-by-side on the rocking chair that Siona’s grandfather built. As Dr. Seaton tells the tale, grown-up readers might sense that the story is one told to their inner child. They might recall that even the book, The Little Prince, was dedicated to the child that the “grown-up once was”.
Siona’s mother uses a simple story line to introduce the complexities of science. The tale is based on a guess (hypothesis), that all creatures with a backbone, such as snakes and fishes, hamsters and humans, arose from a sea squirt who, like Peter Pan, did not want to grow up. Siona’s Tale reveals a mother hoping to guide her daughter to experience the powerful connection all creatures share and a daughter on the verge of understanding that even small acts can have major consequences.
In Dr. Seaton’s story, Siona the Sea Squirt hatches out of her egg 521.2 million years ago—her very existence the result of an immensely improbable, random event. Life is hard on sea squirts but especially hard on Siona. That is because she falls madly in love with her tail. She glories in swimming circles, figure eights, and upside down. She is devastated when she learns that she must stick her head to rock, lose her tail, and never swim again. That is just what happens to sea squirts when they grow up.
To save her beloved tail, Siona the Sea Squirt sets out against all odds on a dangerous journey, making friends along the way with a cast of marine invertebrates, including a courageous ragworm with zinc-hardened fangs, a nervous sea hare blessed with radar-like sensory systems, and a four-armed sea star who laments he will never feel whole again. Siona encounters toxic slime, carnivorous sponges, predatory spiders, pistol-toting shrimp, photons from wee sea beasties, mutants, DNA and ATP, improbable events, dumb luck, friendship, and love. Through the struggles in life and death situations, Siona discovers the strength of cooperation and teamwork and how the special adaptations and talents of each creature contribute to their survival in unexpected, marvelous ways, all of which guide Siona to her destiny—a destiny upon which the human race depends.
As the tale progresses, Siona the Human is drawn deeper into the story. The empathy she has for the Cambrian creatures reaches a climax when the ragworm is mortally wounded in the epic battle with the pistol shrimp. By the power of the story, Siona the Human is finally able to confide in her mother and tell her secret. With her connection to the characters in the story and with her new understanding of the sea and science, Siona the Human is ready to help her mother collect samples at the beach and is thrilled to hold a pipette in her hands.
Siona’s Tale should resonate with readers and educators interested in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) books, those who have outgrown the Magic School BusTM series, and older readers (i.e. grown-ups), who are still keenly aware of their curious inner child. The book may encourage young people to pursue a career in science and others to become citizen scientists. For readers who would like some science with their fiction, Siona’s Tale is a must read.
Barbara A. Liepe was born in Portland, Oregon. She is passionate about science and science education and is committed to fostering scientific literacy and wonder. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of California, at Berkeley in physiology, focused on fish photoreceptors. She has authored a number of publications in peer-reviewed scientific journals and is currently a member of the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Barbara loves to create fictional worlds based on factual biology and composes most of her scenes while jogging before work. If asked why she wrote this book, she will say, “We need scientists and citizen scientists to make the world a better, safer place.” Barbara currently works in the life sciences and she and her husband, Frank, live in Berkeley, California. They have three children.
“A lively narrative that should inspire careful consideration of the oceans.” –Kirkus Reviews
“This story was absolutely adorable. Friendship and family are strong themes throughout. The descriptions were just beautiful… Overall, this book is both educational and entertaining from page one.” –Onlinebookclub.org
“It is a story that feels like an actual experience…It’s unique, compelling, and thought-provoking…We want young people (and people of all ages) to read this book! Think of the nerdy youth out there waiting for a book like this!” –Dr. Charlene Stone, biology teacher at Canyon Del Oro High School.
Follow the author on Twitter at @SionaSeaSquirt.