Even Nature editors were young once. And in a Books & Arts special this week, Nature readers can get a little insight into what makes those editors tick — or, at least, what helped to turn them on to science. Forget virtual-reality goggles and computer-simulated, movement-sensitive interactions. These were the olden days, and stories of the world reached our young editors from inside the covers of books.
Ask someone what reading material inspired them as a child, and few will be honest enough to say that it was comics such as the Beano. So we have to trust our editors when they say they spent their formative years curled up with childhood investigations of chemistry, physics, mathematics and, chiefly, the natural world. But reading their recollections — and, indeed, how some read more-modern works with their own children — it’s easy to see why they did so.
The pages they describe tell science as opportunity and discovery, learning without instruction, and of fascination and imagination. More, it is science as embedded in society and the world, science as a relevant, integral, natural and core ingredient for a curious and active mind. With a foundation like that, it’s easy to see why Nature editors and readers sometimes struggle to understand how anyone would choose to see the world in any other way.
To analyse the content of children’s science books can be like pulling the beard of Father Christmas to see if it’s real. Some of the magic is lost in the process. But there is a serious — and an educational — side to children’s books. Their influence is great, and as such their style and content have been scrutinized over everything from their depictions of violence and gender roles, to people’s attitudes to the environment and recycling. If books leave such a lasting impression on people, then should scientists and researchers do more to make sure that those read to and by children are accurate? Where, for example, does fiction tip into fantasy — and should young readers be made aware of the difference?
These concerns can seem overblown and ripe for ridicule. Does the anthropomorphism of cats and dogs in stories make children believe that their pets can talk? (Probably not.) But can representations of humans as superior and somehow distinct from other animal species fuel misconceptions about our origins? (Perhaps.)
For an example of the power of children’s literature to mislead, simply look up at the sky. The phases of the Moon is a tricky concept to grasp at first, and studies show that even university science graduates mistakenly attribute them to Earth’s shadow. (In fact, as you know, the Moon’s phases reflect how much of its sunlit half is visible from Earth.) Educationists put much of the blame for this on the way in which the Moon is shown in children’s books, including the much-loved Eric Carle classic Papa, Please Get the Moon for Me.
The literary lunar laxness goes even deeper. If children and many adults are sometimes surprised to see the Moon in the daytime, then some of the blame for that can be placed on kids’ books, too. (And so, but less commonly, can the expectation that a cow will leap over it.)
The Moon aside, children’s books are rightly viewed as a greatly valued resource of science. Yes, even those of Eric Carle. Kids may not grasp celestial mechanics, but most know the life cycle of the butterfly. That’s assuming, of course, they have read Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
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