I’m generally pretty lousy at noting trends in the picture book world, but one thing I’ve noticed lately is the publication of several new picture books, all within a two-month span, about evolution. Depending on where an author lives, to even write about evolution is inviting complaints. I live in the South and still run into creationists. Just the other day I read about an educator wanting to take students on a field trip to Kentucky’s Creation Museum, built by people who believe that dinosaurs and humans once shared the planet and where one can “learn how the Bible, the history book of the universe, provides the starting point for science.“ It all makes my head throb, so then I just think of the time Phoebe was trying to get Ross to cave on his own beliefs when she told him she didn’t believe in evolution, thereby driving him mad: “Monkeys, Darwin. It’s a nice story. I just think it’s a little too easy.” And then I at least laugh.
Here we have three new picture books—Grandmother Fish, I Used to Be a Fish, and Charles Darwin’s Around-the-World Adventure—attempting to explain to children the very concept of evolution – the notion that species develop and diversify, change and adapt over time for the sake of survival itself. It’s challenging to explain to very young children, because, as one of these authors notes, evolution is a very slow process. And, as yet another author notes, it doesn’t make intuitive sense to children.
Grandmother Fish: A Child’s First Book of Evolution, illustrated by Karen Lewis, is the debut picture book from, of all things, a game designer. Evidently, this book took author Jonathan Tweet 15 years to complete (his bio states that he couldn’t find a book to help him teach his daughter about evolution, so he wrote one himself), and the book seems to have received a lot of backing to get it published and on shelves. The endpapers are covered in names, and I assume these are all the folks who contributed.
Tweet kicks things off with Grandmother Fish, who “lived a long, long, long, long, long time ago.” (Here, and throughout, the book plays with font size and color to emphasize time – but mostly verbs, the “chomps,” “squeaks,” and “wiggles” of the animals.) One spread is devoted to Grandmother Fish’s attributes, and then readers are told she had many kinds of grandchildren. Here we see a shark, a ray-finned fish, a lobe-finned fish, and a reptile. The reptile (“Grandmother Reptile”) is the star of the next page, and she has her own grandchildren. And so on – from mammals to apes to the first humans (who are, accurately, depicted as darker-skinned). Tweet speaks directly to child readers, attempting to engage them: “[Grandmother Fish] could wiggle….Can you wiggle?”
It’s all very basic but is aimed after all, as the sub-title tells you, at young children. It works. And it closes with the backmatter necessary to flesh out such a complicated topic – a spread depicting “our evolutionary family tree,” explaining how all life on earth is related; a note to “parents, teachers, babysitters, and other readers” about how hard it is for young children to understand evolution and how many grown-ups have misconceptions about the very subject itself; a page that explains concepts of evolution; a guide to “The Grandmothers, Their Actions, and Their Grandchildren”; and a final page that lists common errors related to evolution and how to correct them with children.
I Used to Be a Fish (ten points for that attention-grabbing title) is also a debut from its author-illustrator, Tom Sullivan. It must be emphasized that the publisher describes it as “a light introduction to science,” and Sullivan himself, in the closing author’s note, calls it “a fictional story inspired by the science of evolution.” In other words, it never claims to be an information book.
“I used to be a fish,” the book opens. “But I got tired of swimming.” Sullivan’s illustrations depict bug-eyed creatures in shades of red with primarily blue splashes of color around them (blue trees, rocks, predators, etc.) This book emphasizes the creatures’ need to adapt: Since the fish got tired of swimming, it “grew some legs”; a reptile, scared by a predator, “learned how to hide and I grew some fur, too”; etc. A “BOOM!” occurs one day (the illustrations depict a volcano erupting), and after this Sullivan shows rapid changes from ape to human, the latter rapidly advancing from hunter to contemporary human with a few stops in between – all with uncluttered, droll illustrations. (When the man loses all his fur, he stands naked and surprised, with his hands over his crotch.) It all closes with “A Brief History of Life on Earth” and some more notes about evolution from the author.
Last up is Jennifer Thermes’ bio of Charles Darwin, Charles Darwin’s Around-the-World Adventure. Thermes starts with Darwin’s boyhood and quickly transitions to his adult life, focusing on his experience as a naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle on its journey down (primarily) the coast of South America, a five-year voyage from 1831 to 1836.
As Thermes notes towards the book’s close, Darwin is best known for his research on the Galápagos Islands. But what he learned on land in South America (he was prone to seasickness anyway, readers learn, and was happy to stay on land while the Beagle sailed the coast) went a long way in informing his ideas about evolution. A moderate amount of attention is given to this, his research on land (including the Andes Mountains) and seeing how the lives of all animals were connected, though two spreads are devoted to the Galápagos Islands. Lush, green spreads are the name of the game here, Thermes showing in detail the flora, fauna, and landscapes of Darwin’s world at this time. (Map-lovers will delight in the maps Thermes has illustrated; there are many.)
Evolution may be challenging to explain to very young children, for the reasons noted above, but these books are a good start.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.