A book for kids and the bay; Oyster story aims to increase awareness of the Chesapeake; Sales to benefit bivalves


A pair of fictional Chesapeake Bay oysters is teaching Anne Arundel County elementary school pupils about oyster restoration efforts.

The oysters -- Oshus and Shelly -- are the creation of first-time children's author Jennifer Keats Curtis, whose illustrated story, "Oshus and Shelly Save the Bay," was published through an unusual arrangement with an environmental group and corporate sponsors.

In the book, Oshus and Shelly take their readers on a journey to save their polluted home in the bay.

In real life, sales of the book might help in that effort.

The Severn River Association, a countywide civic group dedicated to preserving the river, sponsored the book's publication to increase youth awareness of the bay and its estuaries' threatened oyster population.

As a part of its Oyster Recovery Program, the SRA will introduce the book, visual aids and lesson plans for pupils in kindergarten through fourth grade throughout the county.

Curtis, 30, said her book is "an engaging story" that brings to life an important topic that is, unfortunately, "boring" to children.

A resident of Anne Arundel County for 23 years, Curtis has written articles on family, wildlife, seniors and travel. She wrote the oysters' story six years ago, Curtis said, after visiting an oyster farm and learning of the bay's oyster crisis.

But the book remained unpublished until she joined the SRA last year and received its support, and then arranged for a friend, Christie Sauer Fifer, to create the imaginative watercolor illustrations that put faces on Oshus and Shelly, and the creatures sharing their watery world.

The SRA helped obtain corporate grants -- $10,000 from the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and $20,000 from the Arlington, Va.-based Mills Corp., developer of the Arundel Mills mall under construction near Baltimore-Washington Internation Airport -- to underwrite publication by Bay Media in Arnold.

In turn, the organization receives about 30 percent of the proceeds from sales of the book to pump into its oyster program, created in the early 1990s to regenerate the bivalve species. The book costs $10.50.

"The book is a great opportunity to educate young children about oyster recovery and at the same time raise money to finance projects along the river for regenerating the oyster population," said Jim R. Martin, newsletter editor for the SRA.

Jane Sinclair, president of the SRA and mother of three children ages 8 to 11, said some within the organization might have been uncomfortable about working with Mills because of concerns about the environmental impact of its $250 million development.

"Mills Corp. isn't developing within our watershed," Sinclair noted, adding, "In order to forward our agenda, if they are willing to work with us, there is no conflict on our part."

Of the unusual publishing arrangements, she observed that it can be difficult for an author "to get something so regional published on a large scale," and that with its educational potential and the chance to help support the oyster effort, "we made it a win-win proposition on all sides."

Curtis said bringing children and the environment together has been a "lifetime goal." Curtis, who has a 2-year-old daughter, said she sees "Oshus and Shelly" as an opportunity to reach young children so "the environment will become part of their everyday thinking."

"Too many people tell young children they are too young for many things. But these children are not too little to do their part [for the bay]," Curtis said.

The bay and its tributaries have lost much of their oyster population to disease, pollution and overharvesting, according to the SRA. Because oysters clean the bay as they push salt water through their gills, filtering algae for food and releasing the sediment, bay pollution and the falling oyster population multiply each other's effects.

The SRA has drafted a lesson plan, approved by the county school system's language arts instruction materials review committee, to accompany Curtis' book.

Designed to help parents and teachers talk to children about oyster recovery efforts, it includes instructions for a demonstration of oysters cleaning bay water, questions about the book and facts about oysters, recovery efforts and the history of the bay.

For instance, the SRA notes in the lesson plan that during the 1800s, so many oysters lived in the Chesapeake that they could filter the entire bay every four days. Oysters kept the waters so clear that people could see 30 feet down. Today, only 1 percent of that oyster population exists and the bay water is a murky greenish-brown.

Curtis' book is the first of an envisioned series for elementary-age children on at-risk creatures of the Chesapeake Bay region.

She said she and the SRA will distribute the book in Anne Arundel, but they plan to expand the effort to include the rest of Maryland and parts of Virginia and Delaware.

The SRA Oyster Recovery Program organizes efforts to restore oyster reefs and cultivate oyster spats or microscopic oyster seeds.

Elm Street Development Corp., a Virginia company building houses in the Millersville area, joined in the corporate support for the book -- and helping in the SRA oyster program -- by purchasing books and lesson plans for pupils at Millersville Elementary School.

The book can be purchased from Bay Media in Arnold, Be Beep-A-Toy Shop in Severna Park and Annapolis, Black Market Minerals and Free State Press in Annapolis, Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michael's and Graul's of Cape St. Claire.

Information: www.oysterbook.com or 410-626-8904.

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