Dr. Seuss meets Darwin in grad student’s new children’s book
March 12, 2014Tweet
The Jungle Book. Aesop’s Fables. Charlotte’s Web. Fantastical tales of anthropomorphized animals have delighted children for generations. That’s all well and good, said Robert Kadar, but kids need to learn the story behind the real animals − the ones that don’t sing or dance − and how they evolved.
“Evolutionary theory is a foundational framework for really understanding life in general, for understanding why organisms do certain things and why humans do certain things,” said Kadar, graduate student at Binghamton University and producer of the upcoming children’s book Great Adaptations. “I think it’s important to have that early foundation, to actually first know about why we do things and how things come about. It’s a foundation for understanding about a lot of important topics.”
Kadar will help kids establish that “early foundation” soon thanks to the success of a campaign on crowdfunding platform Kickstarter. Great Adaptations, a book that teaches children about evolution with whimsical rhymes and colorful illustrations (think Dr. Seuss meets Darwin), recently met its funding goal on the website. Written by Tiffany Taylor, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Reading in England, Great Adaptations will feature 10 short stories based on the research of emerging scientists, all aimed at teaching children about the wonders of evolution.
Kadar developed the idea for Great Adaptations two years ago, after reading about the importance of storytelling as a means of teaching. He reached out to Taylor after reviewing her short poetic story Little Changes in “Evolution: This View of Life,” an online magazine he helped develop with David Sloan Wilson, distinguished professor of biology and anthropology at Binghamton. After meeting with Kadar over Skype, Taylor was thrilled to author Great Adaptations.
“I was really excited about the close collaboration between science, art and poetry,” Taylor said. “I thought it had a lot of potential to excite and inspire the future generation of scientists. I believe evolution should be taught early in biological sciences and reinforced throughout their education.”
With Taylor on board, Kadar and Wilson sought out several leading scientists from all over the world to focus on different organisms and the adaptations they’ve made.
One of those scientists, Binghamton University Associate Professor of Biological Sciences Anne Clark, studies the ecology and life history of cooperative behaviors in American crows. She sees Great Adaptations as a way to get people more involved in science.
“What we hope that all people will appreciate is that evolutionary thinking provides a way to ask really interesting, functional and ‘how-does-it-work?’ questions about why organisms do what they do,” said Clark. “There’s a sense in which helping people be really good observers, really good participants, is part of our goals.”
Clark’s story in Great Adaptations is based on her work and that of Jennifer Campbell-Smith and Yvette Brown, two graduate students who have been studying personality and problem-solving in crows. Clark thinks that kids will respond well to the book.
“Kids are really keen observers,” she said. “If you just let them observe and say ‘Why did X do this to Y?’, they have good explanations. They really like that functional approach.”
Ben Eisenkop, a graduate teaching assistant who studies biogeochemical cycles and is a featured scientist in Great Adaptations, is excited to teach kids how cows have adapted to eating plants.
“For me, it’s a big things to tell kids that everything is interconnected,” he said. “That’s the quickest way to get ecology across.”
As someone who read a lot of science books as a boy, Eisenkop thinks that evolution is just as important as any other science topics kids learn.
“There’s so many other topics you can broach to kids, but evolution for some reason is treated as a huge taboo,” he said. “If you’re able to teach kids about how trains work, and how gravity works and how the planets orbit each other, why not look at evolution in the same way?”
Kadar and Wilson turned to Kickstarter to raise money for distribution and to pay the rest of the artists, which include Zach Weinersmith, creator of the popular webcomic “Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.” Breadpig, a company founded by Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of the social news site reddit, helped Kadar launch the Kickstarter campaign on Feb. 10, two days before Darwin Day − which was definitely no coincidence.
Thanks to the many artists and scientists involved, as well as a proactive social media campaign, Great Adaptations started seeing a lot of backers. But it was an Ask Me Anything (AMA) event held on social networking site reddit that really clinched the deal. Eisenkop, one of the most well-known users on reddit, hosted the Feb. 27 event, along with Wilson, Clark, Taylor and scientist Kelly Weinersmith. The page received more than 110,000 pageviews, and the amount of money pledged to Great Adaptations increased from $20,000 to nearly $35,000 within a few hours.
Now that the project’s fully funded (and then some), Kadar and company are hard at work putting on the finishing touches. Taylor said she has written 85 percent of the book’s poems and plans on completing the book by August. If all goes right, Great Adaptations should hit bookstores by this fall.
Kadar sees Great Adaptations as a book both children and parents can enjoy.
“I learned a lot myself from the book from reading the stories,” he said. “I think it’s going to capture a wide audience of people.”
Taylor, whose favorite story in the book is currently “The Mysterious Case of the Vanishing Killifish,” sees endless possibility in Great Adaptations.
“We hope this book is a success and we can create a series of stories, because luckily for us, there is no end to the number of great adaptations nature has to offer − or passionate scientists dedicating their life to discovering what makes these adaptations so great.”