Seal is the latest release in the Animal series published by Reaktion Books, and the second authored by Victoria Dickenson. The book begins with a review of the evolutionary history of this playful species and then moves into the long and complicated relationship between seals and humans, from the folklore of the selkies to the controversial but historic seal hunts. Dickenson describes pinnipeds, the clade of carnivorous, semiaquatic mammals that includes the Phocidae, or true seals, which are the focus of this book. If you have not spent much time along a coast where seals are common, then the pinniped you are likely most familiar with is actually a sea lion. “The otariids – fur seals and sea lions – are also distinguished by their possession of pinnae, or outer ears. The walrus and the phocids have none, and the ‘true’ seals are thus commonly known as the ‘earless’ seals” (p. 22). After clearly defining the animal that will be the focus of the book, and with the help of gorgeous color photos generously used throughout, Dickenson focuses on the interactions between seals and people, because this is a species that humans have long interacted with and are fascinated by. Their large, inquisitive eyes capture our attention and imagination, and their intelligence has long been a source of amusement and profit – in the case of trained seals, many of whom are given human names such as Jenny, Fanny, and Ned – as well as of consternation – for the fishers who must contend with seals that destroy nets and steal the day's catch.
This book is easy to read and utterly engrossing because of its accessible writing style, liberal use of firsthand accounts, and attractive photographs. However, the photos do not always match the subject matter, which at times makes their inclusion slightly distracting. The author does not shy away from the more controversial aspects of the seal's shared history with humans, specifically the brutal aspects of the seal hunt and the clubbing of baby seals. Her tone is neutral, and she allows readers to generate their own opinions and conclusions about how we should proceed in the future with regard to the Inuit seal hunt, a source of continued controversy. This does not mean that her voice does not shine through. She makes occasional clever jokes that are not condescending, mocking, or off-putting, and are subtle enough to make the reader feel as though she or he has caught something elusive and special.
Accessible enough for high-level young readers, this book could be used in a middle school classroom to supplement a unit on ecology, classification, or a march through the kingdoms. In addition, the examination of the history between seals and humans means that it could be used in an interdisciplinary study between science and social studies.