Aquatica: A Beginner’s Field Guide by Lance Balchin, The Five Mile Press, Vic. Australia, 2017.
Syllabus links – English Stage 3. Years 5-6 and English Stage 4. Years 7-8.
Conceptually similar to an earlier publication, titled ‘Mechanica’, this new picture book by the same author is equally exquisite. ‘Aquatica’ is presented as a scientific field guide of creatures to be discovered in the oceans of the Earth in the year 2250. Introductory information explains the existence of these hybrid aquatic creatures. They are ‘the seaborne relatives of the wider species of Mechanica’ which have evolved since the destruction of biological species during the 21st century. This illustrated scientific guide to Aquatica provides written and pictorial information on a range of amazing creatures documented by a young scientist and explorer, Liberty Crisp. Her research has led to the discovery that some species of Mechanica have developed a means of communication which manifests as a ‘global hum’. In addition, several of the ocean creatures are forging symbiotic relationships in order to help one another survive in a dangerous world. While Liberty fears that the rapidly evolving Mechanica will eventually defeat the small enclaves of remaining humans, she also speculates on a hopeful resolution whereby humans may learn from these creatures that are learning to communicate, share information and work collaboratively.
Although it could be used for teaching various English Textual Concepts, this text is especially useful for focusing attention on the concepts of representation, authority and code and convention. In addition, this compelling resource addresses general capabilities such as literacy, critical and creative thinking, ethical understanding and information and communication technology capability as well as the cross curricular priority of sustainability.
It is supported by the author’s informative Mechanica website which provides details about the history of his fantastic creatures, an explanation of how the images were created, and (after creating a login) access to online tutorials on how to Make Your Own Mechanica using Adobe Photoshop.
Tutorials are delivered via video clips and include an introduction to Photoshop, how to set up the program for use, how to use layers within the program, selecting and erasing sections of an image, using the transform tool to manipulate images, using shadows, colouring, putting it all together, and general design tips including finding rights free digital images that are labelled for reuse. This series of tutorials offers students (and teachers) a very clear introduction to working with Photoshop. (Editor's note: a new Mechanica tutoral (15:52) was released in April 2020. Designed for students aged 10 and older, the video tutorial is supported by printable class notes which offer accessible Photoshop tips. Students can also download a parts file containing components to build a robot in Photoshop.)
There are many different learning and teaching experiences that can be triggered by using ‘Aquatica’ as a focus text. For example, it provides opportunities for students to explore the English Textual Concept of representation and authority and for the investigation of different codes and conventions used by the creator to engage readers in the meaning making process.
‘Aquatica’ simulates the authority often associated with scientific texts while presenting an imaginative futuristic world. It also problematises the notion of authority and implores readers to investigate aspects that appear to provide textual authority and to consider how the sense of authority is negotiated between the author and the responder. ‘Aquatica’ uses established codes and conventions of non-fiction while presenting fictional content. Through critical engagement with this text students should become aware of how an author can creatively subvert expected codes and conventions of a genre to convey important ideas.
Suggestions for using this text
Initially, students should read the book. This can be done either individually, in small groups, or as a class. Teachers should explain that usually a ‘field guide’ is an illustrated manual for identifying natural objects, flora, or fauna in nature. The explanation could be supported with examples of non-fiction field guides from a library. Students can then be asked to suggest reasons why the author would have included the subtitle ‘a beginner’s field guide’.
Teachers could also explain the two-fold nature of authority in relation to texts – that is the intent and information communicated by the author and the extent to which a reader can trust the authority of the text. Further discussion may be prompted by questions such as:
- Does calling the book a ‘field guide’ give it more authority? Why or why not?
- How does ‘Aquatica’ differ from our expectations of a field guide?
- What aspects of ‘Aquatica’ suggest authority?
(Consider the layout, the language used and the style of the illustrations.)
Focus on Authority
Students can create a table on textual devices that convey authority [Word doc 14kb] to record notes about how the layout, language and illustrations presented in ‘Aquatica’ achieve a sense of of authority and authenticity. Working individually or in groups, students should make reference to specific examples that give the book the appearance of a scientific journal. Individuals or groups may then present their findings to the class.
Other devices that may be seen as conveying authority in this text include:
- The simulated pen and ink hand written labelling of the specimen. In what ways may handwriting imply authenticity?
- The use of a quotation by Werner Hertzog as an epigram. Who was Werner Hertzog? Does quoting him enhance or undermine the authority of this work?
- The use of pseudo Latin names for the types of wild life that feature in the book. What is the origin of Latin usage in the scientific context? How and why does the use of Latin confer authority?
Information provided in the contextual setting outlined in ‘A Brief History’ and ‘Symbiosis’ pp.2-5. What aspects of language and design in this preamble suggest that this is an authentic text? What elements of these texts convey a sense of authority? After looking for and discussing various examples of authority relating to ‘Aquatica’, student groups can be asked to review their examples and look for clues that indicate the book is not actually a scientific field guide, but rather a fictional representation offering a futuristic perspective of the Earth and its creatures. Following a discussion about clues that undermine the text’s factual authority, students could be asked to consider why the author would choose to present his ideas in this manner and whether or not it is effective. Does is suggest a different kind of ‘authority’ such as implying that the way humans are living now will affect the future? Is it a cautionary tale?
- Stage 3
- EN3-5B – identify and explain characteristic text structures and language features used in imaginative, informative and persuasive texts to meet the purpose of the text (ACELY1701)
- recognise and explain creative language features in imaginative, informative and persuasive texts that contribute to engagement and meaning
- identify, describe, and discuss similarities and differences between texts, including those by the same author or illustrator, and evaluate characteristics that define an author's individual style (ACELT1616)
- Stage 4
- EN4-5C – critically consider the ways in which meaning is shaped by context, purpose, form, structure, style, content, language choices and their own personal perspective
- EN4-3B – analyse and evaluate the ways that text structures and language features vary according to the purpose of the text and the ways that referenced sources add authority to a text (ACELY1721, ACELY1732)
Focusing on investigating codes and conventions
While a type of text is usually identifiable from its arrangement of codes and conventions, authors can elect to use codes and conventions in a more flexible manner. For instance, in ‘Aquatica’ Lance Balchin draws on the codes and conventions of different genres and combines them to create a new and original product. He fuses scientific journal writing style of a field guide with photorealistic images, which are digitally manipulated and capture a futuristic, steampunk or cyberpunk style, and he embeds these in a science fiction narrative that presents a dystopian future for humanity and the planet Earth.
Through individual or group research students can create detailed definitions for:
- field guide
- steampunk and cyberpunk
- dystopian fiction
Along with the definitions students should list the codes and conventions that are usually associated with each of these genres. A table for codes and conventions [Word doc 13kb] may be used to record information.
Students can then reread ‘Aquatica’ and look for instances where the publication either uses or deviates from expected codes and conventions of the genre or style in question. For instance, if a scientific field guide is normally a pocket book that is taken into the field to help identify natural phenomena, does the large size of ‘Aquatica’ undermine its subtitle? Does this matter? Why or why not? Should this book have a different subtitle? What might that be? There are many aspects of this book that could be the focus of discussion in relation to the application of or subversion of customary codes and conventions. It also opens options for creativity that can be derived through manipulating codes and conventions for effect.
- Stage 3
- analyse strategies authors use to influence readers (ACELY1801)
- discuss the conventions of a range of complex texts, eg act and stage directions in plays, literary devices in poems and stories, layout conventions in print and digital texts
- Stage 4
- EN4-7D – analyse and understand the ways techniques of representation in multimodal texts are used to present alternative views of the world, people, places and events
- EN4-6C – compare the text structures and language features of multimodal texts, explaining how they combine to influence audiences (ACELY1724)
- EN4-5C – understand and use conventions of storytelling in a range of modes and media, eg digital storytelling
Using the entries in ‘Aquatica’ as models students could create their own futuristic specimen of aquatic creatures or land animals, insects, carnivorous fauna, and so on. The field guide identification sheet [Word doc 13kb] offers some guidelines. The entry would require a common name and a Latin name (use Google Translate for ideas)*, a description, an identification list, an illustration and a detailed report on the creature. Work can be completed as hard copy or digitally. Once completed, the specimen can be presented to the class. The work can then be digitised and, if desired, published as a class ebook with its own title, introductory text and index.
Google translate is a useful tool for being creative with names for fictional creatures. Type the name of creature in the left hand box then select Latin in the language box on the right. Click translate to give a ‘Latin’ name for your creature. For example ‘scary jelly fish’ becomes ‘Formidulosus gelata piscis’.
- Stage 3
- EN3-5B – compose more complex texts using a variety of forms appropriate to purpose and audience
- EN3-7C – create literary texts that adapt or combine aspects of texts students have experienced in innovative ways (ACELT1612, ACELT1618)
- Stage 4
- experiment with particular language features drawn from different types of texts, including combinations of language and visual choices to create new texts (ACELT1768, ACELT1805)
- create literary texts that draw upon text structures and language features of other texts for particular purposes and effects (ACELT1632)
- use imaginative texts as models to replicate or subvert textual conventions to create new texts
- compose texts using alternative, creative and imaginative ways of expressing ideas, recognising, valuing and celebrating originality and inventiveness
Apart from the English and literacy aspects presented here, ‘Aquatica’ by Lance Balchin and his previously published ‘Mechanica’ have application across curriculum, with relevance to subjects such as science, mathematics, geography and visual arts and cross-curriculum priority of sustainability as well as to general capabilities including critical and creative thinking; ethical understanding; and information and communication technology capability.
References and further reading
Balchin, L. Aquatica: A Beginner's Field Guide, 2017, The Five Mile Press, Vic. Australia
Balchin, L. Mechanica: A Beginner's Field Guide, 2016, The Five Mile Press, Vic. Australia ‘
How to cite this article - Sly, C. 2018, 'SPaRK - Aquatica: A beginners field guide by Lance Balchin', Scan, 37(1)