Review of the Day: Grandmother Fish by Jonathan Tweet
Travel back with me through the Earth’s history, back into the farthest reaches of time when the sand we walk today was still rock and the oceans of an entirely salination. Back back back we go to, oh about 13 years ago, I’d say. I was a library grad student, and had just come to the shocking realization that the children’s literature class I’d taken on a lark might actually yield a career of some sort. We were learning the finer points of book reviewing (hat tip to K.T. Horning’s From Cover to Cover there) and to hone our skills each of us was handed a brand new children’s book, ready for review. I was handed Our Family Tree: An Evolution Story by Lisa Westberg Peters, illustrated by Lauren Stringer. It was good, so I came up with some kind of a review. It was, now that I think about it, the very first children’s book review I ever wrote (talk about evolution). And I remember at the time thinking (A) How great it was to read a picture book on the topic and (B) That with my limited knowledge of the field there were probably loads and loads of books out there about evolution for small children. Fun Fact: There aren’t. Actually, in the thirteen years between then and now I’ve not seen a single evolution themed picture book come out since the Peters/Stringer collaboration. Until now. Because apparently two years before I ran across Our Family Tree author Jonathan Tweet was trying to figure out why there were so few books on the subject on the market. It took him a while, but he finally got his thoughts in order and wrote this book. Worth the wait and possibly the only book we may need on the subject. For a while, anyway.
Let’s start with a fish. We’ll call her Grandmother Fish and she lived “a long, long, long, long, long time ago.” She did familiar fishy things like “wiggle” and “chomp”. And then she had ancestors and they turned out to be everything from sharks to ray-finned fish to reptiles. That’s when you meet Grandmother Reptile, who lived “a long, long, long, long time ago.” From reptiles we get to mammals. From mammals to apes. And from apes to humans. And with each successive iteration, they carry with them the traits of their previous forms. Remember how Grandmother Fish could wiggle and chomp? Well, so can every subsequent ancestor, with some additional features as well. The final image in the book shows a wide range of humans and they can do the things mentioned in the book before. Backmatter includes a more complex evolutionary family tree, a note on how to use this book, a portion “Explaining Concepts of Evolution”, a guide “to the Grandmothers, Their Actions, and Their Grandchildren for your own information to help you explain evolution to your child”, and finally a portion on “Correcting Common Errors” (useful for both adults and kids).
What are the forbidden topics of children’s literature? Which is to say, what are the topics that could be rendered appropriate for kids but for one reason or another never see the light of day? I can think of a couple off the top of my head, an evolution might be one of them. To say that it’s controversial in this, the 21st century, is a bit odd, but we live in odd times. No doubt the book’s creators have already received their own fair share of hate mail from folks who believe this content is inappropriate for their children. I wouldn’t be too surprised to hear that it ended up on ALA’s Most Challenged list of books in the future. Yet, as I mentioned before, finding ANY book on this subject, particularly on the young end of the scale, is near impossible. I am pleased that this book is filling such a huge gap in our library collections. Now if someone would just do something for the 7-12 year olds . . .
When you are simplifying a topic for children, one of the first things you need to figure out from the get-go is how young you want to go. Are you aiming your book at savvy 6-year-olds or bright-eyed and bushy-tailed 3-year-olds? In the case of Grandmother Fish the back-story to the book is that creator Jonathan Tweet was inspired to write it when he couldn’t find a book for his daughter on evolution. We will have to assume that his daughter was on the young end of things since the final product is very clearly geared towards the interactive picture book crowd. Readers are encouraged to wiggle, crawl, breathe, etc. and the words proved capable of interesting both my 2-year-old son and my 5-year-old daughter. One would not know from this book that the author hadn’t penned picture books for kids before. The gentle repetition and clincher of a conclusion suggest otherwise.
One problem with turning evolution into picture book fare is the danger of confusing the kids (of any age, really). If you play it that our ancestors were monkeys, then some folks might take you seriously. That’s where the branching of the tree becomes so interesting. Tweet and Lewis try hard to make it clear that though we might call a critter “grandmother” it’s not literally that kind of a thing. The problem is that because the text is so simple, it really does say that each creature had “many kinds of grandchildren.” Explaining to kids that this is a metaphor and not literal . . . well, good luck with that. You may find yourself leaning heavily on the “Correcting Common Errors” page at the end of the book, which aims to correct common misconceptions. There you will find gentle corrections to false statements like “We started as fish” or “Evolution progresses to the human form” or “We descended from one fish or pair of fish, or one early human or pair of early humans.” Of these Common Errors, my favorite was “Evolution only adds traits” since it was followed by the intriguing corrective, “Evolution also take traits away. Whales can’t crawl even though they’re descended from mammals that could.” Let’s talk about the bone structure of the dolphin’s flipper sometime, shall we? The accompanying “Explaining Concepts of Evolution” does a nice job of helping adults break down ideas like “Natural Selection” and “Artificial Selection” and “Descent with Modification” into concepts for young kids. Backmatter-wise, I’d give the book an A+. In terms of the story itself, however, I’m going with a B. After all, it’s not like every parent and educator that reads this book to kids is even going to get to the backmatter. I understand the decisions that led them to say that each “Grandmother” had “grandchildren” but surely there was another way of phrasing it.
This isn’t the first crowd-sourced picture book I’ve ever seen, but it may be one of the most successful. The reason is partly because of the subject matter, partly because of the writing, and mostly because of the art. Bad art sinks even the most well-intentioned of picture books out there. Now I don’t know the back-story behind why Tweet paired with illustrator Karen Lewis on this book, but I hope he counts his lucky stars every day for her participation. First and foremost, he got an illustrator who had done books for children before (Arturo and the Navidad Birds probably being her best known). Second, her combination of watercolors and digital art really causes the pages to pop. The colors in particular are remarkably vibrant. It’s a pleasure to watch them, whether close up for one-on-one readings, or from a distance for groups. Whether on her own or with Tweet’s collaboration, her clear depictions of the evolutionary “tree” is nice and fun. Plus, it’s nice to see some early humans who aren’t your stereotypical white cavemen with clubs, for once.
I look at this book and I wonder what its future holds. Will a fair number of public school libraries purchase it? They should. Will parents like Mr. Tweet be able to find it when they wander aimlessly into bookstores and libraries? One can hope. And is it any good? It is. But you only have my word on that one. Still, if great grand numbers of perfect strangers can band together to bring a book to life on a topic crying out for representation on our children’s shelves, you’ve gotta figure the author and illustrator are doing something right. A book that meets and then exceeds expectations, tackling a tricky subject, in a divisive era of our history, to the betterment of all. Not too shabby for a fish.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Our Family Tree: An Evolution Story by Lisa Westberg Peters, ill. Lauren Stringer
- From Woof to Wolf: The Story of Dogs by Hudson Talbott
- You Are Stardust by Elin Kelsey, ill. Soyeon Kim
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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