Only Richard Dawkins could write a children’s book that generates this much controversy. Since the title was announced, fans and detractors of the world’s most (un?)popular biologist have been arguing back and forth about whether or not the book’s content is appropriate for kids.
To familiarize those who don’t know, Richard Dawkins is the author of The Selfish Gene and The Greatest Show on Earth–hard-hitting, science-heavy books about evolution and the evidence we have for it. He’s also the author of The God Delusion, which rivals Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great for the “most reviled book in America” title. It’s easy to suspect, if you know anything at all about Dawkins, that this book might be a little heavy-handed, and yes, inappropriate for kids. Being a parent and a fan of science, I decided to find out for myself by reading the book with my six-year-old.
It’s unfair, maybe, to judge a book by its cover. Unfair or not, it happens, and my first reaction to The Magic of Reality was an audible intake of breath. Illustrator Dave McKean (the rockstar behind Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and The Graveyard Book) knocks it out of the park in Magic: every page and both covers are spectacular. The book could probably best be described as a “graphic science text,” visually on par with any beautifully drawn book.
Secondly, the questions that prompt each chapter are typical, child-age questions: From whimsical (“What is a rainbow?”) to probing (“Why do bad things happen?”), each section of The Magic of Reality addresses an inquiry any kid will ask his or her parents. By first presenting the myths people have created to make sense of a world that doesn’t quite make sense, Dawkins then does what Dawkins does best: he counters it with reason, offering evidence of what we do know to help predict and understand what we don’t. This time, he’s kinder about it. Rather than getting “Darwin’s Rottweiler,” readers of The Magic of Reality get Dawkins the Well-Educated Grandfather, whose gentler voice and everyday language make the book interesting and easy to swallow. It’s not exactly Dawkins Lite, but it is Dawkins Kind, a not unwelcome tack when writing for children.
It’s common for adults to stumble over the answers to these chapter questions–my daughter’s passing inquiry about bellybuttons once turned into an awkward, fumbling explanation of evolution, by way of the follow-up, “But what if there weren’t people to make babies with bellybuttons?” At this point the easy route might have been to throw up my hands and say, “I’ll explain it when you’re older.” But that’s a cop-out and a disservice to a kid’s genuine curiosity about how things work. So I rambled along until we were both satisfied that Mom knew nothing and bellybuttons were, apparently, unexplainable.
A few weeks later, The Magic of Reality hit my mailbox and Chapter 2, “Who was the first person?”, helped me make much more sense. This specific chapter is the shining star of the book; Dawkins is right at home in breaking down the evolutionary process, offering the most succinct and elegant explanation of evolution I’ve ever read. (I’ve read a few.) Coupled with McKean’s illustration, these 22 pages of the book are engrossing, informative and fascinating, and could quite easily stand alone as a young reader’s guide to evolutionary biology.
I read Magic myself before introducing it to my daughter–not because I was concerned about the book’s content, but because I wanted to be able to explain complicated ideas in easier words. (Carbon-14 dating, for example, is difficult to parse when you’re in first grade.) There are concepts in the book which are perfectly understandable to children her age–and definitely for those who are especially curious, since they’ll likely already have these questions ready for you–though clearly certain concepts are not fully grasped by children this young. Atomic structure elicited a polite nod and, “Those look like hula hoops.” Which, actually, is a pretty good interpretation of electrons orbiting the nucleus, at least until it becomes important that she understand it further.
Other chapters inspired similar small-person commentary:
During “What is the Sun?”, she informed me that it is indeed a star, just like the book said, and “a really really big one, even bigger than a whole planet.” Check.
Reading “What is a rainbow?” we veered into color-mixing and ROYGBIV, with emphasis on a recent art project. “My rainbow had pink in it, but that’s because it’s prettier than green,” she told me. (I disagree.)
And reading about the annihilation of 99% of life on Earth, illustrated in the form of a massive asteroid getting super-friendly with the planet, I discovered that my kid knows a lot about dinosaurs and their demise: “It hit the Earth and all the dinosaurs tried to run away and there were volcanoes and it was dark all the time! But the rock was SO BIG that even the hiding ones died. ALL OF THEM, MOM.”
Yet “What is an earthquake?” and its explanation of plate tectonics didn’t interest her even a little, apparently: “Can we just look at the pictures of the frogs again, ok?”
At the end, she asked, “How do people even know this stuff?” Of course, I told her that it’s because they asked questions.
On the surface it would seem that most of the content in The Magic of Reality whooshed right through her head, where it was promptly replaced with thoughts about which of her costumes in Little Big Planet is most awesome and suggestions for what I should go make for dinner right now. But the seeds of understanding big concepts are best planted in small plots. There will be more questions about bellybuttons and observations about the seemingly impossible enormousness of the Sun, and every real answer tends those little plants. Someday she’ll just “get it,” and having resources like Dawkins’s book on hand will only help reinforce and speed along that process.
So, the consensus: Yes, The Magic of Reality is perfectly acceptable (and by this parent, at least, highly recommended) for young people. It’s certainly never too soon to begin teaching children about science and determining fact from fiction, and Dawkins’s book is a useful tool for both. It’s interesting enough to occupy a few hours of Mom’s day (and Dad’s, presumably) as well. In short, according to my kiddo, “This book is way awesome.”
The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True releases Oct. 4, 2011 in the US. Buy it for all the geeklets you know.
Read my personal review (minus my daughter’s commentary, plus discussion of the book’s chapters) on LitStack, and get excited: an interview with Richard Dawkins is coming soon right here on [GaS].