CM . . .
. Volume IX Number 17 . . . . April 25, 2003
In the foreword to Craig Bohren's What Light Through Yonder Window Breaks?: More Experiments in Atmospheric Physics, David Jones writes an elegant, straightforward description of the scientist's approach to the world. He suggests it begins in looking and noticing things, and then realizing there is a question to be asked. From seeing and wondering, the scientist tries to dream up an answer. After that, experiments are performed to test the "truth" of the scientific ideas in the answer devised. Considered from this perspective, Catherine Ripley's Why? The Best Ever Question and Answer Book about Nature, Science and the World Around You is wonderful.
The book is divided into six sections with the headings "Bathtime Questions"; Supermarket Questions"; "Nighttime Questions"; "Outdoor Questions"; "Kitchen Questions"; and "Farm Animal Questions." Each section contains material from the six books in Ripley's “Question and Answer Storybook Series” (see CM reviews of Why is Soap So Slippery?, and Do the Doors Open by Magic? in Vol. II, No. 40 and Why do Stars Twinkle? in Vol. III, No. 5). The organization and the stylized realism of Scot Ritchie's charming illustrations reflect beautifully the contextualized nature of children's questions. In "Outdoor Questions," for example, a young girl, her father, and their dog named Ollie are introduced to the reader as they are leaving their home on a walk that will take them through a park. As soon as the three are outside, standing on a sidewalk strewn with puddles of water, the girl looks up at her father and asks, "Why does it smell so fresh after it rains?” The question, contained in a box with the answer, is written in a large bold font that jumps and hops in waves across the page. The answer is printed beneath the question in predictable text and conventional layout. Each two-page spread is similarly illustrated so that the reader is aware of what the child has seen or experienced that results in the question posed. Earthworms on the damp grass and concrete are juxtaposed with "Why do worms come out when it's wet?" An illustration of the father about to put a bandage on his daughter's abraded knee is placed next to "Ow! How does my cut stop bleeding?"
The story is told in the natural flow of questions that arise as events unfold in true-to-life situations. In other sections of the book, Ripley and Ritchie tell stories of five different families using questions asked in a bathroom before and after bathing, flushing the toilet, and hanging up wet towels to dry; questions while grocery shopping; questions as the day ends and night, the time for sleeping, approaches; questions about preparing, eating, and cleaning up after meals; and questions about an outing to a farm fair with displays of ducks, chickens, rabbits, sheep, cows, goats, horses, bees, and pigs. As a consequence of the contexts chosen, not one of the seventy-one questions in the book seems inauthentic. You believe children have asked them. I'm not convinced that a similar claim can be made for the answers given by the parents and caregivers.
How many preschool aged children understand the meaning of light waves, clear light, colors in the rainbow, color waves, gases, and molecules, as well as water vapor, electronic eye, gelatin braids, microscope, the Earth spins, balance, and other terms used in the book? Even the adult who knows what Ripley is talking about may have difficulty putting it into words that make sense to the child they're reading with. There is also a problem with the simplicity of the explanations. I recognize the ages of children for which the book has been written, but I also know that many of the questions children ask are complex and some of the most difficult questions for physicists, biologists, chemists, geologists, and astronomers to answer. Evidence for this can be found on Internet sites like "How Stuff Works" (http://science.howstuffworks.com/) and Scientific American's "Ask the Experts" (http://www.sciam.com/askexpert_directory.cfm).
Regardless, I recommend Why? The Best Ever Question and Answer Book about Nature, Science and the World Around You. It helps children to notice, wonder, and ask questions based upon observations. My only suggestion to those reading the book with children is that the answers not be announced immediately after the question has been read? First determine why the question might have been asked and then find out how the children beside you would explain the cracking of ice cubes, the dark night sky, and the cold tiles under their bare feet. When they've told you, is there a simple experiment they could design that you could help them carry out?
Barbara McMillan is a professor of early and middle years science education in the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.