Won't someone think of the children?

Around these parts, folks sometimes get het up about issues like scientific literacy (or lack thereof) in the general public, public interest (or lack thereof) in matters scientific, and whether scientists have the chops to communicate information clearly to non-scientists.

It's worth remembering that a large group of non-scientists are kids, and that they are actively sucking information from wherever they can get it -- parents, teachers, television, internet, even books.

Ahh, books. We like books. Books can get kids interested and excited about a topic even in the absence of an adult expert or enthusiast in the vicinity.

So it's a good thing if the books are actually providing information rather than misinformation. And this is why Miriam Axel-Lute at Strollerderby would like to have a word with children's book authors. Specifically, she'd like them to cool it with their persistent mistakes about the natural world:

Now, before you call me a killjoy, I don't mean that I have a problem with fantasy and surreality. I love it. The goofier the better. Animals talking, kids flying or shrinking, toys coming alive . . . great. I'm not complaining about Richard Scarry's five-seater pencil car.

But it's generally clear when books are striving to be basically realistic, even educational. You know the type: books about where rainbows come from, or things you see on a fall walk, or world animals. It's when most things are right that the glaring errors bug me. The least we could do, I figure, is not actively teach kids things they'll have to unlearn later if they ever manage to study biology or ecology. (Cultural errors and biases get into a whole other can of worms.)

Here are five sets of nature facts that children's book authors (and illustrators and editors) seem to get wrong over and over and over ...

You should definitely click through and read Miriam's list -- plus the additions to it readers have left in the comments.

But I have this hunch that some of you adult consumers of kids' nonfiction may have internalized your own top 5 list of forehead slappers as far as scientific accuracy is concerned. So, if you'll indulge me, please post a comment with your short-list of science and nature facts that children's book authors get wrong. Then go read Miriam's and join the pile-on there.

More like this

1 - Lions = "king of the jungle"! For cripes sake people! Lions live on the savanna, which is very unlike a jungle. Would it kill us to talk about another ecosystem? I mean, it's not like most kids in the US have actually seen a real live jungle, but they all know what one looks like bc of children's books. Let's go for the same with savanna so lions can live where they belong please.

2 - Penguins and polar bears. They have never met, as adorable as we think it might be if they did. Why have they never met? Because the bears live in the arctic and the penguins live in the antarctic, which are very very far apart.

3 - Cattle illustrated with udders who are called "he". I know why it happens. We call them "cows" which is a specifically female noun, females have udders so.... Also, cows make milk, which requires udders. But not all cattle are cows. Some are bulls and steers. Those ones don't make milk because they don't have udders.

This one is not a children's book problem, but it kind of galls me. I was recently visiting a zoo which is promoting a really great program in which they place Anatolian shepherd dogs with shepherds and their flocks in North Africa. The dogs bond with the sheep/goats and protect them from predators...like cheetahs, which the shepherds would otherwise kill to protect their flocks. Good for everyone - dogs have a flock to protect, sheep don't get eaten by cheetahs, hunters don't have to worry about their flocks, and the cheetahs aren't getting shot - they go and hunt for more appropriate prey. I think it's a great program. But it kills me that the zoo is publicizing this program by having two Anatolian shepherd dogs bond with their cheetahs, the very species that they are meant to fend off in the actual implementation of this program. Confusing!

Other than anything published by Jack Chick and the Discovery Institute, the Worst Child Education Offender is Ken Hamm. Of course the book he distorts is Teh Bible, but he could and should, IMHO, be prosecuted for child abuse for his big "Man Lived with Dinos" "museum" in KY.

Think of the kids and close that lying piece of garbage down!

I hate it when peta complains that salmonoid sea kittens contain high levels of mercury. They dont.

By Uncle Fishy (not verified) on 14 Jan 2009 #permalink

In the very popular "The Very Hungry Caterpillar", the caterpillar makes a cocoon, which I'm told is what moths make, not butterflies (should be a "chrysalis"). Also, when the (spoiler alert) butterfly comes out, the wings are upside down.

A bit of a digression, but this brought something to mind...

(If you want to cut this post, to keep the thread on track that's OK.)

I like giving my nieces and nephews books. For fiction I like to give them those books I remember fondly from my own childhood, where those are still available.

I've also been thinking a bit about how I became interested in science. Some of that was from books - mostly "grown-up" books, albeit with lots of pictures. Some was from TV, especially natural history documentaries.

There's no problem with giving new old books. But there's very little chance of the kids seeing those documentaries which so enthralled me so many years ago. Like Jacques Cousteau. Sure: there have been some fantastic recent wildlife programmes but shouldn't we still cherish - and view again - great TV programmes of the past?

Spiders are not insects. My son has known this since he was 5 (and has corrected his teachers 'no miss it's not a insect it's a narachnit') Unfortunately many authors do not. Son wanted to write to JRR Tolkein to point out his error in this regard.

Dinosaur books with no sense of geologic time! T. Rex and Brachiosaurus hanging out in the same illustration, for instance. There's this sense that all dinosaurs lived at once, which might get in the way of recognizing evolution in the dinosaurs.

(Oh, and dividing dinosaurs into "meat-eaters" and "plant-eaters," as if diet were the primary evolutionary subdivision.)

And I'm not even a vertebrate paleontologist - I'm sure people who really know dinosaurs have even more nits to pick.

SimonG-- check out old shows at the Internet Archive.
I believe this "collection" began with the Prelinger Archives accession a few years back. Cool, weird, quirky, interesting stuff, some useful, some not.

That's a pretty thin list of complaints. 3 isn't really true, 2 and 5 both fall well inside "Who cares?" and I've never seen 4.

Yes, when you see a Ricard Scarry picture of a kangaroo and a tiger driving a car together -- true, kangaroos and tigers don't live together. Also, they don't drive cars.


While we can all disagree about what's worth caring about, I'm curious about what makes you say #3 (birds don't build nests to sleep in) isn't true.

I was going on sources like these to back up my birdwatching family's reactions to this point: http://www.birds.cornell.edu/Publications/Birdscope/Spring2008/FAQs_nes….

I'm learning plenty from doing this exercise, that's for sure. Which is appropriate.