The Laboratory Library: Book Review

The Deep Black Pond (2010) by Morgan Kostival

The Deep Black Pond cover

AS A WRITER, Morgan Kostival is a pretty good illustrator. His book, “The Deep Black Pond,” is a fairy tale of sorts seemingly inspired by the “Just So Stories” of Rudyard Kipling.

More on Kipling later, but first to Kostival’s book. Kostival’s “The Deep Black Pond” is his first published work, and it features both his artwork and story depicting a fanciful, mythological ecosystem.

Kostival’s “once-upon-a-time” fable takes place on an unnamed island “thousands of miles away from where you are now and 15 miles beyond that.” The island surrounds the pond of the book’s title, where most of the action takes place.

The island is inhabited by Qurgo, the sole survivor of three tribes that warred over the fresh water of the pond. Qurgo’s actions resulted in the island’s fairies forcing him to wear upon his shoulders a village occupied by the tiny Peewee culture. Qurgo, like Greek mythology’s Atlas who supported the ancient world on his shoulders, is tasked with protecting the Peewee or face further penalties from the fairies.

The pond is occupied by the ravenously frightening fish, Cuddles; Baron Sheldon, who lives in a gas bubble at the bottom of the pond; Queen Lilly, who shuttles her lily pad around the pond each day seeking sustenance from the continuously shifting sunlight; and the King, who sculpts his subjects from pond scum and gives them cute names despite the fact they smell and also exhibit rude behavior.

The story’s main conflict involves the distrust among the pond’s population, which resolves itself after Qurgo accidentally drops Mimi, the tiniest member of the Peewees, into the pond. As a result of Qurgo’s neglect, Mimi eventually becomes the very first pink pearl.

Readers of Kipling will remember his “How the Camel Got His Hump,” “How the Leopard Got Its Spots” and other stories whimsically explaining the evolution of various physiological characteristics in the animal kingdom. As with Kostival’s story, the entirely fictional reasons given for animal adaptations to their respective environments are intended entirely for entertainment.

Unfortunately, however, the creation of pearls from irritants inside an oyster’s shell is depicted pretty much as it really happens in nature rather than in the wildly imaginative stories of Kipling. If Kostival had wanted to give his readers an opportunity to learn precisely how pearls are formed, he might have spent a bit more time describing the natural processes involved.

Additionally, the cooperation that develops between Qurgo and the pond’s dwellers is a missed opportunity to explain to young readers the real-life and sometimes complex interactions necessary for sustaining the lives of creatures both on land and in the water. While concepts of photosynthesis and eutrophication are introduced, the importance of both, respectively, as desirable and a threat to the pond’s health are never fully explored.

Furthermore, this reviewer wished Kostival had made more of the, yes, sometimes scary aspects of nature in order to teach readers that a robust environment requires both predators and prey in order to maintain a reasonable balance. The author does come close, however, to creating a world where nature isn’t portrayed as a delicate flower automatically polluted by the presence of humans. After all, humans have coexisted with bodies of water for centuries, and more often than not have become as much a part of the “natural environment” as the flora and fauna too often depicted as merely fragile by Hollywood and literature.

The story of “The Deep Black Pond” will not win awards for writing. Too often, the narrative is disrupted by vocabulary words that would easily baffle younger readers, and the author frequently relies on clichéd phrases. A glaring misspelling on page 14 (“gapping” instead of “gaping” — is in itself rather clichéd when describing the mouth of Cuddles) also stands out.

Finally, Kostival’s illustrations should be noted as inspired by the stop-action motion picture techniques of old Ray Harryhausen films as well as “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “The Corpse Bride.” In this, Kostival exhibits his degree in video production. As reproduced on the page, however, the pictures lack the detail and clarity necessary to grab the attention of either children or adults.

As a story that could inspire young audiences to further explore the natural sciences, “The Deep Black Pond” falls short. As a fantastic allegory that could entertain as well as instruct, it also leaves much to be desired.