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Studying Science with Secrets of the Sea: The Story of Jeanne Power, Revolutionary Marine Scientist

Secrets of the Sea: The Story of Jeanne Power, Revolutionary Marine Scientist

Written by Evan Griffith and Illustrated by Joanie Stone

Published in 2021 by Clarion Books

ISBN 978-0-358-24432-5

Grades 1-6

Book Review

The year is 1818 and a young woman named Jeanne wanders the shores of Sicily. Formerly a seamstress, she reinvents herself as a scientist, a naturalist who explores the island on foot, journal in hand. This young woman and her accomplishments is the subject of a new picture book biography collaboration by Evan Griffin and Janie Stone.  Using the term revolutionary, Griffin describes how Jeanne Villepreux-Power’s inventions and observations helped to change the way scientists studied animal life. She also fiercely defended her research in the face of male skepticism; some men even tried to claim her work as their own. Fascinated by ocean creatures, Jeanne devised a way to observe live ocean animals at a time when most marine biologists were studying dead specimens. She invented a holding tank that was placed in the ocean and a large aquarium to bring animals into her home for observation. She was particularly fascinated with the paper nautilus and was the first to prove that this cephalopod grew rather than borrowed its shell. Stone’s digitally-rendered illustrations immerse readers in Jeanne’s beloved ocean. The end papers and titles pages are a deep bubbly blue and amazing sea creatures float across the interior pages. Young readers might be surprised by the historically accurate images of Jeanne exploring nature in long wide skirts! Back matter includes more information about Jeanne Villepreux-Power, details about the paper nautilus, an author’s note on research processes, and a bibliography. This fascinating narrative of discovery and persistence belongs in your collection of picture book biographies. Use it to teach the disciplinary literacies of science, pair it with other stories of women “revolutionaries,” or as part of a historical study of scientific discovery and oceanography. 

Teaching Ideas: Invitations for Your Classroom

Note to our Readers: These ideas are not meant to be prescriptive. Choose one. Choose more. It’s up to you. Some ideas are bigger and will take a number of days to complete. Some are shorter. You can also choose to complete one part of a teaching idea, but not the whole thing. It’s up to you!

Grades 1-6

Women Naturalists. Work with your school or local public librarian to create a Solar System text set featuring women naturalists and conservationists. Include titles such as those we have featured on The Classroom Bookshelf as well as others listed in the Further Explorations section below:  Me..Jane, The Watcher, Rachel Carson and her Book That Changed the World, Life in the Ocean: The Story of Oceanographer Sylvia Earle, and  Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees. Invite students to compare and contrast the lives of these women. What obstacles did they face? What discoveries did they make? How was their scientific work received? What differences do you notice across time periods?  Invite a local woman naturalist to visit your class to talk about her work, connecting with your local conservation or park departments. Have students prepare questions in advance. Following the visit, invite your students to think about and share an aspect of the natural world that interests them – working as a naturalist, what would they study? 

The Paper Nautilus. Reading Secrets of the Sea is sure to make your students curious about the paper nautilus, the subject of Jeanne (add last name)’s observations. Read the author’s note that provides more information and share the resources in the Further Explorations section below with your students, providing them the opportunity to learn more about this fascinating octopus. What other ocean creatures do students want to learn more about?  Extend this study by connecting to other cephalopod discoveries large and small, including the giant squid (see our Classroom Bookshelf entry on Candace Fleming’s Giant Squid) and the very recent discovery of glass octopus

Observing Live Animals. Students can practice the skills of scientists by being observers of live animals. Launch this exploration by sharing this Ocean Conservancy video of a Paper Nautilus. Record students noticings on a large anchor chart. Next divide students into small groups and provide them with time to observe different animal species on Webcams (see the Further Explorations section below) multiple times of the course of a week or two at different times of day. Ask students to look back through their observation journals, noting any patterns they observed in animal behavior over time. Each group can share their findings with the class as a whole. Students who show particular interest in this activity can be encouraged to conduct a longer observation of an animal in nature near their home. 

Aquariums. Jeanne invents a table top aquarium that allows her to observe live animals over time. Invite students to consider the difference between this set up and the large aquariums that we have access to today. If possible, arrange for a tour of a local aquarium; if none are close by, take virtual tours of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, National Aquarium, The Aquarium of the Pacific, The New York Aquarium and the Georgia Aquarium (and others of more local interest to you). Invite students to reflect on what aquariums offer us – how does close observation and experience with ocean animals benefit humankind? What is the impact of aquariums on animals – there is complexity here – how do aquariums keep animals safe and promote species survival and how do they harm or limit animals lives. You may want to discuss the differences between aquariums focused on conservation and those focused on entertainment, such as Sea World. 

Designing for Animal Study. As a longer project-based STEAM extension of the teaching invitation above, ask students to work collaboratively to design a new structure or mechanism for the study of animals. Students can create conceptual drawings, build prototypes, and begin to estimate the costs and processes required for full scale construction and implementation. 

Grades 3-6

Undersea Explorations. Jeanne Villepreux-Power’s studies are one aspect of the larger history of ocean explorations. After reading Secrets of the Sea, read Barb Rosenstock’s Otis and Will Discover the Deep: The Record-Setting Dive of the Bathysphere. Invite students to compare and contrast the life stories of Jeanne and Will Beebe and Otis Barton. For more teaching ideas and resources on studying the history of Ocean Exploration, see The Biography Clearinghouse entry on Otis and Will written by Mary Ann and Erika. 

Author’s Craft: Back Matter. The Back Matter contains a wealth of additional information to support students’ understandings and to prompt further inquiry. After reading the back matter with students, ask them to discuss what they learned from the back matter and how it enhances their understanding of Jeanne Villepreux-Power’s life story. Distribute copies of additional nonfiction texts with rich back matter to small groups of students who can read the books, study the back matter, make notes on how the back matter enhances the text and then report out to small groups. Suggested titles for this exploration include Giant Squid, Dr. Fauci: How a Boy from Brooklyn Became America’s Doctor, The Floating Field, Honeybee, and Above the Rim

Critical Literacy

Disciplinary Literacies. Engage your students in a close reading of Secrets of the Sea, creating an anchor chart of the references to the Disciplinary Literacies of science found throughout the book (examples include Jeanne’s observation boxes and aquariums, her journaling, mentions of her evidence and reports). Reread the section of the book that describes how her findings were questioned and/or dismissed because she was a woman. Ask your students – who gets to do science? How do they learn? What resources are available to people who want to be scientists? To whom are these resources most accessible? Extend this discussion by arranging interviews with local scientists of different genders and different sociocultural backgrounds. Invite these scientists to talk about their early interests, their preparations, and their current work. 

Further Explorations

Author’s Website: Evan Griffith Book

Illustrator’s Website: Joanie Stone

Discover Wildlife: Inspiring Female Naturalists and Environmentalists Through History

Smithsonian Magazine: Women in Science

Maryville University: Women of Color in STEM

National Geographic: Argonaut (Paper Nautilus)

Sea History for Kids: Paper Nautilus

Ocean Conservancy: Get to Know the Paper Nautilus (includes video)

Earth Cam: Animal Cams

New York Times: The Best Live Animal Feeds From Around the World

The Biography Clearinghouse: Otis and Will Discover the Deep by Barb Rosenstock


Atkins, J. (2000). Girls who looked under rocks : the lives of six pioneering naturalists. Ill. by P. Connor. Dawn Publications. 

Lawlor, L. (2012). Rachel Carson and her book that changes the world. Ill. by L. Beingessner. Holiday House. 

McDonell, P. (2011). Me…Jane. Little Brown. 

Nivola, C. (2012). Life in the Ocean: The story of oceanographer Sylvia Earle. Farrar Straus Giroux. 

Prevot, F. (2015). Wangari Maathai: The woman who planted millions of trees. Ill. by A. Fronty. Candlewick. 

Winter, J. (2011). The watcher: Jane Goodall’s Life with the chimps. Schwartz and Wade. 

Picture Book Biographies of Women Naturalists:

Swimming With Sharks: The Daring Discoveries of Eugenie Clark by Heather Lang

Dinosaur Lady: The Daring Discoveries of Mary Anning, the First Paleontologist by Linda Skeers

Joan Proctor, Dragon Doctor: The Woman Who Loved Reptiles by Patricia Valdez

Marjory Saves the Everglades by Sandra Neil Wallace

Ocean Speaks: How Marie Tharp Revealed the Ocean’s Biggest Secrets by Jess Keating

When Sue Found Sue: Sue Hendrickson Discovers Her T Rex by Toni Buzzeo

Spring After Spring: How Rachel Carson Inspired the Environmental Movement  by Stephanie Roth Sisson

Stone Girl Bone Girl: The Story of Mary Anning by Laurence Anholt

The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever by Joseph Hopkins 

Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai by Claire Nivola

She Heard the Birds: The Story of Florence Merriam Bailey by Andrea D’Aquino

The Leaf Detective: How Margaret Lowman Uncovered Secrets in the Rainforest by Heather Lang

Saving American Beach: The Biography of African American Environmentalist MaVynee Betsch by Heidi Tyline King

Solving the Puzzle Under the Sea: Marie Tharp Maps the Ocean Floor by Robert Burleigh
Special thanks to author Barb Rosenstock and her amazing collection of Biographical Picturebook titles on Pinterest.

Erika Thulin Dawes About Erika Thulin Dawes

Erika is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former classroom teacher, reading specialist, and literacy supervisor, she now teaches courses in children’s literature, early literacy, and literacy methods. Erika is the co-author of Learning to Write with Purpose, Teaching with Text Sets, and Teaching to Complexity.