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Chomp! Munch! Chew!

Franklin Watts: 1999. £10.99

It Takes Two

Franklin Watts: 1997. £4.99

I Didn't Know that Wolves Howl at the Moon

Watts: 2000. £9.99

Zooming and Creeping

Oxford University Press: 2000. £5.99

Evaluating the science in a children's book — whether it's right or wrong — is simple. But to determine how attractive or interesting that book is to children you have somehow to acquire a child's perspective. To deal with this, I condemned 15 children's books on various aspects of animal behaviour to the hands of my brood, twins approaching four. Surprisingly, they liked the same two books that had particularly impressed me. The coincidence may, however, be due to a flaw in my experiment. Like the famous 'counting' horse Clever Hans, which picked up inadvertent cues from its owner, my offspring were perhaps sensitive to the 'you'll like this one' cues coming from their father.

The books in question are both by the writer/illustrator team of Karen Wallace and Ross Collins. Chomp! Munch! Chew! is “about how animals eat”. The other, on animal reproduction, happily lacks a correspondingly graphic title. Both books present a lot of basic biology in an engaging and informative way — although It Takes Two never gets down to reproductive nuts and bolts. We are taken on a largely vertebrate-centric tour of the animal kingdom, and introduced to the snapping jaws of a gharial; the nesting habits of weaver-birds; the nectar-harvesting devices of hummingbirds and hawkmoths; paternal care in sea horses; and the compost-incubation methods of Australian megapodes.

My reasons for liking these books are simple, and apply to children's science books in general. Most importantly, Wallace and Collins do not subscribe to the 'Guinness Book of Records' school of popular science — they present a diversity of behaviours and taxa rather than gee-whizzery. Of course, books are not the only victims of the current belief that science is no longer inherently interesting but has to be presented with highly amplified bells and whistles: many museum displays have become so dumbed down that the underlying science is drowned out in the bell/whistle cacophony. Among the books I looked at, both I Didn't Know that Wolves Howl at the Moon and Zooming and Creeping insist on addressing the pressing biological issue of what is the fastest flying moth. At least they agree that hawkmoths hold the record, although they present rather different figures, 50 and 39 kilometres per hour, respectively. Do children honestly care about lepidopteran flight velocity? I don't believe they need to view nature as a sort of collection of superheroes — fastest flyers, slickest swimmers, highest jumpers — in order to find it interesting. Perhaps more importantly, a superhero view of the natural world is as misleading as would be a view of our own species based solely on US Olympic sprinter Marion Jones, and leads to disappointment when, later in life, children encounter some real biology.

Books these days are often elaborately illustrated with photos; this approach has been adopted by the Natural History Museum's 'Weird & Wonderful Guides', of which Zooming and Creeping is an example. Perhaps unexpectedly, this typically does not do animal behaviour justice. A still photo of a leaping frog is actually less expressive than a well-drawn image of the same thing; the artist can capture more than the photographer. This is certainly true of the illustrations in the Wallace/Collins books, which, although in some ways simple and cartoonish, nevertheless convey the nuances of behaviour in action much more effectively than photos.

Beatrix Potter and Walt Disney doubtless have a much greater impact on most children's appreciation of animals than do books on animal behaviour. There is therefore an inclination to anthropomorphize this kind of material, or at least to sentimentalize it. Although the Wallace/Collins books are definitely 'family viewing', they don't shy away from some of biology's less rosy aspects.

They are also keen to include humans in the natural world, and both their books incorporate our species into their survey of animal behaviour. In terms of the messages that children receive from books about biology, I think this is perhaps the most important. If children come to see humans as just another species in a richly diverse biological world, then perhaps we can look forward to the eclipse of that most absurdly persistent of all anti-scientific dogmas, creationism.

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