Saturday, October 13, 2007

WE: Evolution in a Picture Book

I've been stewing over WE by Alice Schertle, illustrated by Kenneth Addison, trying to sort out my thoughts on this interesting new picture book. This is how the publishers describe this book:"In WE ... Alice Schertle brings to young readers the fascinating story of the common origins of the human family. In spare, lyrical verse she traces the evolution of human development from its beginnings in Africa seven million years ago to modern times, highlighting the emergence of diversity among peoples and the spread of culture, technology, and our ability to form complex, and sometimes troubled, societies."

Phew, that is a tall and very ambitious order for a picture book with, on average, fewer than 50 words a spread. Schertle is, no doubt about it, a very accomplished and talented poet. I have no quibble with her poetry, my concern with WE is the subject matter and the target age group. Evolution, human origins, human history...however you want to describe not an easy topic for the "average", not-too-science-literate adult, so I think this book, as presented, could prove confusing to young people.

Here's an example of what I mean. After an introductory spread showing the changing landscape in Africa, and reference to the formation of the Rift Valley, we see two apes illustrated and this text:

African sun warmed us
African winds blew through our thick hair
We cooled our feet and our throats in the river
and ate what we could catch or find
in Africa

On the next page:

And we changed slowly
as the river-washed stones grew smooth as moons

We were brainier now
and our hands fingers and thumbs so clever

Okay, so in one page we've blasted through hundreds of thousands of years of minute changes at the hands of natural selection. And so it goes. By the next page, we have upright Homo sapiens. From there, the book goes into the the technological advances ("So we built boats/ and made sails to catch the wind/ and were lost on the vastness of the sea"), settlements ("We built cities with strong walls/ and machines to knock down the strong walls of cities/ We made war."), and diversity of human existence as we learn through the text and pictures the diversity of religion, art, landscapes, etc. A huge, and very brave imho, amount to fit between the covers of a picture book.

My conclusion about this book is that it is only as successful as the person reading it is skilled at interpreting the information to children. How well can they expand on the ideas presented within to children? It could be a fabulous starting point for all sorts of discussions, but I just don't think that children will grasp the idea of human evolution as it is presented in the opening pages. For a child, "slowly" means the amount of time it takes for the school bell to ring at the end of a day. I can only imagine what they might be thinking when presented with the idea -- probably for the first time -- that humans evolved from apes. And, as a science educator who has written about evolution, I know how lacking most adults' understanding of this topic is. I would love to be a fly on the wall to see how this book is used by parents, teachers, and librarians and hear the questions children ask (and the discussions that result).

Having said all this, I do think that once you get past the first few pages and are into fully evolved Homo sapiens and the story of their dispersal across Earth, you're into a very different story. This one tells of how we spread across the planet and created societies, cultures with varying religions, music, art and technologies. This is more straightforward stuff with no end of starting points for wonderful discussions.

So, these are just my thoughts. I'd love to hear yours if you've read this book. A note on the art by the late Kenneth Addison. At first I thought the collages were too busy and confusing, but the more I looked over the book the more I liked the style. There is lots for children to pore over and the art would be a good jumping off point for activities on collage. Here's a good blurb on Alice Schertl on the occasion of her birthday from the blog, Poetry for Children. You can also read more about the book, including an interview with Schertl, here.

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