It appears that I am not alone in my gripes against substandard children’s books. Someone commented with the idea of hiding books that are too stupid to be endured (a category that includes anything with licensed characters or stories adapted from TV episodes). I like that plan, but I encourage you to save these books for when they will come in handy.
“You took the car without permission, and you wrecked it. I’m giving you a choice: you’re grounded for a year — or you have to read Wolf Pup Rescue ten times aloud.”
To be fair, some goofs like, “she covered her hands with her ears” (true example), are simply the result of hastily churned out Kiddie Pulp trying to meet the demand of hungry little readers. They’re no harm and can be worth their weight in giggles.
Less excusable, however, are things that took actual thought. Like saying your characters’ magical quest must conclude by the full moon, later tonight — even though right now the sky shows only the slimmest crescent.
Another book tells of a fairy, who can almost reach a magical tiara with her outstretched arm, yet is unable to fly out to reach it — fly! — before the lumbering bad guys a full ten feet away can not only spot her, but have a full conversation before running after her!
And how is it that fairies can’t fly when their wings are wet, but they can make a human, several hundred thousand times their own weight, fly through a downpour?
The implied message from the books is, “Don’t think too much. Just accept it’s magic.”
But thinking is exactly what books are supposed to promote. When an author creates a situation or a world, even a magical Alice-in-Wonderland world, the reader needs to be able to think about it and agree, “Yes, that makes sense.”
That goes doubly with real-world facts. A book belonging to a generally excellent series, well loved by our daughters, introduces kids to advanced vocabulary and fascinating facts through an entertaining narrative.
While reading it aloud, we came across the line, “Without feathers, most [hummingbirds] are the size of a bumble bee.” Fascinating. Very fascinating. In fact, too fascinating.
It made me stop and think, “How can that be? I’ve seen bumble bees, and I’ve seen hummingbirds. And that just doesn’t seem plausible.”
What does one do in a situation like that?
One looks it up, one does. So I did, and I found the very same “fact” on the internet.
But, really? Really???
Come on, be a nerd with me.
The smallest of hummingbirds, coincidentally called the Bee Hummingbird, is a dainty 2.25” in length. Snap off the bill and pluck the tail feathers, you might get that down to the size of a bumble bee, which ranges from about .75” to 1.5” in length. But the Bee Hummingbird weighs a whopping two to two-and-a-half grams. More than 40 times the weight of a bumble bee. Don’t tell me that 97% of a hummingbird is feather weight!
But that’s the smallest hummingbird. The book said “most hummingbirds.” In the Eastern US, that means the Ruby Throated Hummingbird, while in the Western US and Canada, the primary specimen is the Black-Chinned Hummingbird, nearly identical in size. Both a huge-ish three inches — or three bees — in length, which is on the small side of the usual three to five inch range for hummingbirds worldwide. And they tip the scales at three and a half grams, or 70 — count ‘em, 70 — bumble bees.
Some hummingbirds, meanwhile, grow to a whopping nine inches long. Imagine a bee that big! But only if you’re sitting down and not given to heart palpitations.
You know what would make a cool kids’ book? Take a piece of lore like that, a “fact” that “everybody knows,” and blow it to bits by (a) thinking critically about it, and (b) looking up some nitty-gritty facts to help power that thinking. Show kids how to explore and examine the information they are fed, and learn to sort the true from the false.
In other words, to think for themselves.
That’s real magic.