I was delighted that author Jonathan Tweet, when he got in touch with me a while back, followed up by having a copy of his children’s book about evolution, Grandmother Fish, sent to me. The book recognizes and faces head on the challenges in teaching scientific concepts to small children, especially in relation to a topic about which misunderstandings are widespread even among those who accept mainstream science. And so the main body introduces human ancestors and their distinctive characteristics in vivid, picturesque terms that small children will enjoy: wiggling, chomping, squeaking, cuddling, and more. But this is supplemented with additional information for the adult who will read the book to children, to ensure that they understand, and when the time comes, can elaborate further on the simplified portrait aimed at the very young. This small final section is in adult-sized (i.e. smaller) print and so can fit in a great deal of additional information, including correcting common errors about evolution, such as that we descended from one fish or a pair of fish, or that we appeared when an ape gave birth to a human. He also explains that, having chosen the potentially misleading term of “grandmother” for these distant ancestors, he means it as a term of endearment and not literally.
I showed the book to my wife, who has quite a bit of experience with teaching preschool children, especially in Sunday school, to see what she thought of it. She felt as though, in the process of simplifying the scientific story of evolution quite so much, to some cute anecdotes about inidividual animal types and their activities, it risks losing the essence of the story, just as the versions of Noah and the flood or David and Goliath offered to children loses the essence of the original adult stories. It is an interesting comparison, given the fact that in some circles the teaching of these two topics is considered mutually exclusive. The challenge in both cases, however, is to not ignore important information until unnecessarily late, while not oversimplifying so much, or instill dogmatism in such a way that, the oversimplification is what the individual remains with and clings to even into adulthood. Perhaps that is an inherent issue in writing stories and seeking to convey information to children. And perhaps there is no real way to avoid the pitfalls and get it right. But even if that is the case, and teaching science or the Bible to children is an inherently problematic undertaking, I still felt that Jonathan Tweet’s approach, which recognizes the need to teach the teachers and parents and not just the children, does as good a job as it is possible to do. And to be clear and fair, my wife’s comments were not a criticism of any shortcomings of this book, but observations about the challenges inherent in any undertaking of this sort. Grandmother Fish does as good a job as it is possible to do when taking a complex subject that is a focus of ongoing detailed scientific research and conveying it not merely to a non-specialist audience, but to absolute beginners.
I will be meeting with the author for lunch tomorrow, and look forward to sharing this review with him if he has not already seen it by then, and to getting his autograph on my copy of Grandmother Fish (and probably also on one of his D&D manuals, since I am likely to give my copy of Grandmother Fish in extended indefinitel loan to a relative or friend who has children the age of the book’s intended audience).