As a new mother, one of the things I found odd about baby books and such was an overwhelming emphasis on farm animals. Now, I’ve got nothing against farm animals, but it did strike me as interesting that our youngest humans are fed a steady diet of rural domesticated animal life as their introduction to nature.
Having grown up near the ocean, I began tracking down picture books that featured the sea, and not only was it a relief to venture beyond e-i-e-i-o with my pre-schooler but it was interesting that the ocean books themselves seemed to have a different, savvier edge to them rather than evoking the placid warm fuzziness of the pastoral nursery. For example, Eric Carle's Mister Seahorse comes with a story at odds with the relentless emphasis on mommies that you find in baby world (abetted by all those baby farm animals and stories about their mommies), featuring those species of sea creatures where it is the male who takes care of the eggs – a baroque group that ranges from Mr. Stickleback to Mr. Kurtus to Mr. Pipe to Mr. Bullhead . . . strange creatures doing the unexpected, naturally. In Stella, Star of the Sea by Marie-Louise Gay, an endlessly inventive older sister answers the million questions her little brother (reluctant to wade into the big loud ocean) puts to her, not with scientific accuracy, but certainly with exuberance, explaining how starfish are stars who fell in love with the sea, for example. And that reminded me of something else about children’s books about nature and children's interest in the why and wherefore of how the world works: for me, at least, it wasn’t the "fact" books that caught my attention, but books that captured great and intriguing questions, evoking a sense of wonder, remaining with me even today.
I’m not completely out to lunch on this – well, or at least I’m in the good company of noted physicist and author Chet Raymo, who made a similar point in his essay "Dr. Seuss and Dr. Einstein: Children’s Books and Scientific Imagination." Raymo notes that "we live in an age of information. We are inundated by it. Too much information can swamp the boat of wonder, especially for a child. Which is why it is important that information be conveyed to children in a way that enhances the wonder of the world. . . If a child is led to believe that science is a bunch of facts, then science will not inform the child’s life, nor will science enhance the child’s cultural and imaginative landscape." In my own childhood my curiosity about how the world works was powered by fantastic books like The Phantom Tollbooth (with its explanations of infinity and the daily recurrence of the dawn that I can picture even still) and the time-traveling mystery of A Wrinkle in Time and a lavishly illustrated Giant Golden Book of Elves and Fairies (by Jane Werner and illustrated by Garth Williams). It still has a pull for other sixties kids as well – if you can find a used copy from the 1950s/60s, it will run you upwards of $100, depending on the condition. Luckily, there are 21st century reprints!)
A children’s picture book can weave a creative pattern that pulls you into the heart of nature in ways that leave an imprint on your psyche that few classroom science books will later on. One of my secret impulses, when someone asks me for a suggestion for a biography of Charles Darwin that might be a good introductory text for them, is to suggest they try Peter Sis’ brilliant picture book, The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin, aimed at grade-schoolers. I rarely give in to the impulse, however, presuming they’ll think I’m nuts, and instead suggest one of the impressive recent biographies that properly-credentialed historians of science have recently published. But if what they are really wanting to do is to brush back the shadows of time to try and capture the tangled bank within which Darwin lived, then in my heart of hearts, I think that Sis might be the better starting point
(and bewitch them, even as he did me, despite my being a professional science historian). Sis captures so much of the fascination of Darwin’s life and times in pages that open up like intricate Chinese boxes, full of one surprise after another, with a collage of words and pictures that draw on maps, diagrams, portraits, Darwin’s writings and a myriad of other details big and small contributing to an artistic analysis of the naturalist’s intellectual and social ecology, of his private and public habitats, that is hard to forget.
In 1956, Rachel Carson wrote an essay for Woman’s Home Companion, entitled "Help Your Child to Wonder" (an expanded version of the essay can be easily found in several adult-focused editions that were published after her death). It begins not with a pastoral scene, but of a description of two humans, one older and experienced, one still new to walking and talking, facing the ocean on a tempestuous night, where, "out there, just at the edge of where-we-couldn’t-see, big waves were thundering in, dimly seen white shapes that boomed and shouted and threw great handfuls of froth at us." You don't get much farther away from e-i-e-i-o than that.
I don't think it is necessarily true that somehow children are more attuned to wonder than adults, but I suspect that wonder is a powerful emotion that only manifests itself when the person doing the thinking and feeling is immersed in a world where space and time has an ample, expansive dimension to it. If that's true, then in a world of 24/7 in which multitasking is honed to a high art and where walking by oneself without being immersed in an electronic bell jar is becoming a thing of the past, wonder doesn’t stand a chance of putting in an appearance as a daily matter . . . unless maybe, sometimes, in the pages of a children's book, in the space and time that binds together the reader and the read-to.
For more: Madeleine L'Engle's acceptance speech, "The Expanding Universe," for the Newbery Medal awarded in 1963 for A Wrinkle in Time; Eric Carle's bulletin board idea exchange for parents and teachers using his books; Charles Dickens's mordant take on the meeting of fact-based science and children's fancifulness, in Chapter 2 of Hard Times (1854); and historian Caroline Walker Bynum's presidential address -- entitled "Wonder" -- to the American Historical Association in 1996.
Images: Cover illustration of Eric Carle's Mister Seahorse (Philomel, 2004) and Madeleine L'Engle, A Wrinkle in Time (Delacorte Press, 1991) -- illustration by Peter Sis and a page from The Tree of Life at nyla's pinboard.
Note: Links updated on 8.19.2018 / Published on 2.6.2006