Author/illustrator Karen Romano Young grabs a front-row seat to view the world
Oh, to what far places has author and illustrator Karen Romano Young voyaged from her home in Bethel!
She’s gone to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean in a mini-submarine and to the Arctic Ocean with a NASA expedition. Just this past spring she lived for two months at the smallest U.S. research station in the Antarctic. Now, having overcome early trepidation, she’s looking forward to a new Antarctic adventure in January.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been so nervous as I was getting ready to go to the Antarctic,” Young says, ticking off some of the trip’s dangers: falling out of a inflatable boat, stepping into a crevasse, the fumbling, mumbling and stumbling that mark the stages of hypothermia.
She recorded the risks in her #AntarcticLog, a series of educational panels done in the style of a graphic novel, then counted the anticipated pleasures in another. Once there, at Palmer Station, they proved profound.
“We’d be out on this boat wearing a lot of clothes, seeing lots of scenery, penguins swimming by, seals swimming by, whales, albatrosses, giant petrels, leopard seals — which are the only things that wants to eat you, but they really do kind of want to eat you,” Young says.
She also happened to witness the discovery of a new island, revealed by the calving of a giant iceberg. She recorded the event in an AntarcticLog dated April 5 that noted: “Well, if the world is going to change you might as well have a front row seat.”
Climate change is not the primary focus of Young’s varied work, but it inevitably shows up. On her Arctic voyage in 2010, she saw walruses marooned on a beach because the ice that should have been their hunting platform had floated into waters of undiveable depths.
Nor is her work limited to science education. Young, who grew up in Fairfield, also writes novels for a middle-school audience. Her eighth, titled “Hundred Percent” about girls transitioning to teen-hood, is due out in paperback this fall from Chronicle books. Her interest in polar science goes back to her first children's book, “The Ice’s Edge,” published in 1996 by the Smithsonian press.
Young did not go to sea, though, until 2004, when she won a spot as educator aboard the research vessel Atlantis, mothership to the deep diving vehicle Alvin. Its mission was to investigate the volcanic vents, sometimes called “black smokers,” and the extreme lifeforms their heat supports along the undersea ridge known as the East Pacific Rise.
Young’s job was to send back reports via blog posts or satellite phone. She wasn’t promised a descent in the three-person Alvin, but when a seat opened she grabbed it. She remembers the location, roughly 1,000 miles due west of Costa Rica, and the date, Dec. 6.
“It was definitely one of the top 10 days of my life. I was nervous and excited, but not scared,” she says, having been trained in dive protocol.
“You’re in for eight hours. It’s 11/2 hours down and 11/2 hours back. You wear a big hat and a heavy sweater. It gets cold down deep. It gets to be really dark. There’s so many glowing things (bioluminescent sea life) going by the window, it’s like it’s raining up. and you realize it’s us falling down. But you don’t have any sense of motion because it’s pitch dark. The only time you feel motion is on the surface.”
The dives were to depths of up to two miles. In 2008, she went on a second Atlantis expedition further along the East Pacific Rise. Now on a bookcase shelf in her Bethel studio, she keeps a strange souvenir collection from those voyages.
What looks like mis-created origami are actually ordinary Styrofoam coffee cups (or other Styrofoam objects) that crew members decorated then put in nets to be carried on the outside of the Alvin to the bottom of the ocean. During the descent, they shrink and contort under water pressure.
In 2014 and 2015, Young made two more research voyages, this time aboard the Nautilus, a vessel belonging to Dr. Robert Ballard’s Ocean Exploration Trust. On the first to the Windward Passage, where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Caribbean Sea, Young acted as a shipboard communicator.
On the second, back to the northern end of the East Pacific Rise, she was lead shipboard communicator.
Instead of carrying a manned mini-sub like the Alvin, the Nautilus uses a pair of remote control divers, the Hercules, which goes deep, and the Argus, its companion, which tracks it from above. Their real-time movements are monitored from the Ocean Trust’s land based control center that also provides a live public stream. Young compares it to the Houston control for space travel.
She began preparing for the Antarctic in 2017, after learning she had won a National Science Foundation grant for artists and writers. Her next trip, beginning in January, will be to the Amundsen Sea as outreach officer aboard the JOIDES Resolution, a deep-drilling ship that has been called a floating earth science laboratory. (JOIDES is the acronym for the science consortium that runs the ship.)
In the meanwhile, Young will be drawing her AntarcticLog comics and looking forward to the publication of her ninth novel for middle graders, titled “A Girl, a Raccoon and the Midnight Moon,” and a new graphic nonfiction book based mainly on her Pacific voyages. Due out in 2020, and also published by Chronicle Books, its title is “Diving for Deep-Sea Dragons.” Her 2017 book, “Whale Quest,” is a young adult finalist in this year’s Connecticut Book Awards.
Young, who is married with three grown children, says the family has been excited and supportive about the adventures she considers it an extraordinary privilege to have had.
“I am quite aware I have seen things very few people have seen,” she says.
“I stayed home when my children were young. They didn’t realize I was up at night working (on her early books) I wanted them to see women could go off and do hard things.”
Joel Lang is a frequent contributor to Sunday Arts & Style.