31 January 2017

Three kids’ books

Posted by Callan Bentley

It is one of my most exquisite delights as a parent to read to my son. I love snuggling up with him on the couch in the evening and opening a book and diving in to share ideas together. In this blog post, I wanted to share three exceptional books that my family has chanced upon with you, in the hopes that you might read them with your kids, or give them to kids you know.

The first is Older Than the Stars, by Karen C. Fox, illustrated by Nancy Davis. This book takes children on a tour through the history of the universe, from the Big Bang until now, connecting the discernible reality of their modern bodies with the ancient happenings in an energetic young universe. Atoms are the linking concept, and this is where the title comes from – the atoms that make up everything, including young readers, originated in the heart of ancient stars. Thus, the kids are “older than the stars,” since their carbon came from a pre-existing star. Concepts like the nebular hypothesis and supernovas are covered in simple, easy to understand terms like “gas in a giant puff” or “the blast intense enough.” You’ll note the rhyme between those two phrases. That’s part of the extended cumulative construction of the book – it builds the story up a concept at a time, connecting them in a cadence that ultimately leads to the young person reading the story. A third of it: “This is the blast intense enough / to hurl the atoms so strong and tough / that formed in the star of red-hot stuff / that burst from the gas in a giant puff / that spun from the blocks / that formed from the bits / that were born in the bang / when the world began.” Each page brings a new chapter to the story, and a new phrase added on to the extended sequence of events. Each concept is explained in a brief (~3 sentence) explanation at a higher cognitive level than the rhyme. The entirety is quite a beautiful whole. My kid loves reading it. For review or fodder for discussion, a timeline at the end recounts the temporal sequence of events at the proper scale.

Next, consider Grandmother Fish, by Jonathan Tweet, illustrated by Karen Lewis. As with Older Than the Stars, the point of this book is to ground the child’s perspective of their place in the world in the context of their evolutionary heritage. It has five major parts, each separated into a two-part sequence. It begins by meeting ‘grandmother fish,’ who lived “a long long long long long time ago.” Then you move on to grandmother reptile, grandmother mammal, grandmother ape, and grandmother human, with each new character warranting one fewer “long” in the description of when they lived. Two of each organism’s abilities are described, and then the parent reading the book asks their audience whether they can do those same things (for instance, the fish can wiggle and chomp). Then the child is shown an evolutionary tree, and asked to pick out the next organism in the line that ultimately leads to us (for instance, grandmother fish’s descendants include coelocanths and sharks, but you want to find the reptile among the five choices on offer). Ultimately, the book’s conclusion has us marvel at humanity’s many children, ourselves among them. It’s an inclusive picture showing a diverse crowd of humans, young and old, brown and tan, disabled and upright. We are all related, and our ancestors are shared. We can all wiggle and chomp and crawl and cuddle, etc. These abilities are a consequence of our evolutionary history, the abilities selected for in our distance ancestors. Pretty cool perspective! A vast two-page tree of life is included at the end, putting the species discussed in a greater context, allowing the child to trace with their finger the genetic survival of their own life all the way back to the origins of life on Earth. Pretty powerful, and attractively illustrated.

The final book I’d like to endorse in the genre of “great things to read with your kids to give them perspective on their existence,” is The Golden Rule, by Ilene Cooper, illustrated by Gabi Swiatowska. Unlike the previous two, this book isn’t about science, but instead about ethics and morals. It takes the form of a conversation between a boy and his grandfather, discussing ‘the golden rule,’ the idea that we should treat other people the way that we would like to be treated ourselves. The old man explains the concept to his grandson, and takes him on a quick tour of comparative religion, seeing how this essential, simple concept transcends the particular flavor of one’s religious faith, or the idea of faith at all. The boy is asked to consider how he would apply the golden rule in his own life, and whether he would like it to be applied to him. They consider how the world would be if more people lived by the golden rule – what would be the effects on governance and history? Ultimately, the grandfather encourages the boy to begin applying the golden rule in his own life. It’s lavishly illustrated with rich paintings and sketches of the boy’s imaginings as the concepts are discussed and he considers them. It’s multicultural and universal, and a great opportunity for parents to explore “how to act” with their children.

We are made of pieces of dead stars. Our ancestors were fish. We should treat each other the way we want to be treated. These are big concepts, and these books make them accessible to a child’s mind. I recommend them all.