ISHPEMING - What do elementary school students care about Asian carp, sea lamprey or spiny water fleas? Maybe not much now, but several schools around the Upper Peninsula hoped to plant the awareness of invasive species in their young students with a special author presentation this week.
Downstate author Mark Newman kicked off a tour of schools this week at the Aspen Ridge Elementary School, talking about his book "Sooper Yooper: Environmental Defender."
Illustrated by the late Mark Heckman, a downstate artist and activist, "Sooper Yooper" follows the adventures of the fictional Billy Cooper as he works with his bulldog sidekick Mighty Mac to keep invasive species out of the Great Lakes.
Mark Newman talks to students at the Aspen Ridge Elementary School this week about invasive species and their impact on the Great Lakes. (Journal photo by Johanna Boyle)
Newman gave the kids some insight into how he and Heckman wrote the book, but then gave an overview of plant and animal species that are considered invasive.
"The Great Lakes have over 180 villains," he told the kids, casting the invasive species in the "villain" role of the super hero story.
Using videos and preserved specimens of zebra mussels, rusty crayfish and various species of fish, students got the chance to see what the invasives look like and how they came to exist in the Great Lakes, some through the ballast water of ocean-going vessels or being introduced by anglers who used them as bait.
However they got here, invasive species spread rapidly due to a lack of natural predators, often choking out native species.
Keeping kids, even young kids, aware of the impact invasives have is a key step in combatting them, said Aspen Ridge media specialist Aaron Yunker, who helped organize the stop at Aspen Ridge to allow the kids to celebrate National Reading Month.
"Twenty years ago, we didn't even think about it," Yunker said. "It's something we're going to have to learn about to keep the Great Lakes healthy."
"The future of our Great Lakes rests on them," he said.
The book's illustrator, Heckman, used his art to convey messages through large format billboards, drawing attention to issues such as homelessness and deforestation. Diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, Heckman passed away last May after finishing the illustrations for the book but before seeing the finished product.
"As Mark valiantly fought his own battle, he saw the dire consequences that can await our waters if we fail to act," Newman said.
Supported by the Wege Foundation, the presentation is free to schools. Besides Aspen Ridge, Newman also made stops in Negaunee, Calumet and Lake Linden.
For more information about the book or about invasive species, visit sooperyooper.com.
Johanna Boyle can be reached at 906-486-4401. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.