Grandmother Fish: A Child's First Book of Evolution (Review)
Interest Level: Ages 3 - 6
Author: Jonathan Tweet
Illustrator: Karen Lewis
Publisher: Feiwel and Friends Books (Macmillan), 2015
Pages: 24 + end matter
Summary: The story of evolution told in a child-friendly way, this book uses the basic concept of families and grandparents to offer a simplified account of how humans descended from other animals. Text is simple and asks children to do and find things along the journey. Extensive endnotes, aimed at parents and caregivers, provide a deeper and more technical explanation of evolution and offers terms and answers to provide when children are ready to explore more.
I have known about this book for some time, but did not lay eyes on it until recently. Knowing the subject is controversial, I wasn't sure what to expect. I feared it would feel preachy or unprofessional. I was worried the artwork would be an afterthought. I wondered if children would really choose a book like this from the shelf. Do you have these same concerns? Thankfully, this book is everything it promised to be. It is unique (School Library Journal calls it "groundbreaking"), bright, engaging, and well written. While this book is intended to lay the foundation of an understanding of a very complex scientific idea, the language is simple and direct. Instead of getting bogged down in concepts like inheritance and mutations, it relies on a simple idea that most children understand: grandparents (specifically grandmothers).
Our oldest grandmother in the book is a fish. She was grandmother to a reptile. That reptile was grandmother to a mammal, and so forth. As the the story unfolds, children are asked to do the things that each animal can do (wiggle, snuggle, hoot) or find an animal among its cousins. The format is perfectly age appropriate and consistent with the idea that this book is to be shared as a family. It is a short read (12 spreads) followed by informational endnotes.
End matter includes a simple and colorful evolutionary tree, a letter to parents and caregivers, a simplified explanation of evolutionary mechanisms for grownups, a breakdown of each spread in the story and the science behind it, and guidance for correcting common errors about how evolution works (wonderful!).
Karen Lewis's artwork is delightful. It is simplified, but not cartoonish. She uses pencil and watercolor to create a bold and eye-pleasing palette. A few things (like breath) are shown stylistically. The first humans are shown with dark skin, an important detail, and the extended family of humans are depicted inter-generationally, with multiple skin tones and hairstyles, abilities, and clothing.
I found it quite interesting to learn that the author, Jonathan Tweet, is not a subject matter expert, but rather a game designer! I am going to have to look into his games next (We are a big gaming family). You can learn more about Jonathan and Karen at grandmotherfish.com.
It's hard for me to imagine any better treatment of this subject for young children. I recommend Grandmother Fish highly, and I hope it remains in print and widely available for a long, long time. This book is available for purchase at the I Dig Books store and at Bookshop.org.