November 12, 2009


Really, Really Big Questions about Life, the Universe, and Everything. By Stephen Law. Illustrated by Nishant Choksi. Kingfisher. $16.99.

Life Story: The Story of Life on Our Earth from Its Beginning Up to Now. By Virginia Lee Burton. Houghton Mifflin. $22.

The We Generation: Raising Socially Responsible Kids. By Michael Ungar, Ph.D. Da Capo. $15.95.

     Making big topics understandable to young readers and their families is a noble endeavor even when it is not a wholly successful one. So Stephen Law, a British philosophy professor and journal editor, deserves praise for Really, Really Big Questions about Life, the Universe, and Everything, even though the book tends to tread too lightly to make the impression Law obviously seeks. There are four chapters here: “The Great Big Universe Puzzle,” “Mysterious Minds and Robots That Think,” “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” and “Seeing and Believing.” Each contains a series of questions: “What is nothing?” “What is it like to be a bat?” “How important is happiness?” “Does astrology really work?” Law tends to dance around many of the questions, apparently hoping readers ages 9-12 will get to the answers themselves, but often conveying the notion that there are no right or wrong answers – a noble thought in philosophical terms but less so in scientific ones. For example, “Did someone design the universe?” meanders from the blithe comment, “If a designer designed the universe, who designed the designer?” to a quotation about a puddle from Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, who here seems to be something of an ultimate authority. Indeed, although the work for which Adams is most famous is not mentioned, it is clearly a big influence on Law, since the third volume of Adams’ five-volume SF trek is called Life, the Universe and Everything. But to return to Law’s book: “What makes stealing wrong?” explains that a successful bike theft may make the thief happy, but it makes the victim less happy and also worries or frightens other people, so “there is less happiness overall. Well, yes, but why, exactly, should the successful and happy thief care? It is unfair to fault Law for offering better questions than answers – that is what philosophers and many other people do all the time – but there is a “well, maybe” tone to this book that becomes wearing after a while. And Nishant Choksi’s cute illustrations do little to clarify the underlying seriousness of purpose – although they are often fun to look at in their own right.

     Life Story takes on an even bigger subject – the entire history of life on our planet – but Virginia Lee Burton’s 1962 book does not hold up very well, even in its new, updated edition. Burton, best known for Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel and The Little House, casts Life Story as a play in a prologue, five acts and epilogue, using left-hand pages for simple narrative and right-hand ones to show the events on a stage. The narration tends to be a bit coy for modern tastes: “Way back in time when our Earth was young no Life could have lived on it.” And the need for compression leads to writing that seems dismissive of vast ages of Earth’s development, such as the single sentence, “Fish, which first appeared in Cambrian oceans, grew more abundant,” to cover one of the major developments of the entire Ordovician period. There is an underlying perkiness to the narrative that is rather ill at ease with the subject matter: “Some [dinosaurs] had developed armor for protection from their meat-eating cousins.” And the “play” conceit wears thin quickly. On the other hand, the basic science here is sound. Left-hand pages, in addition to narrative, show fossils of specific animals and give their names and the names’ pronunciations. And there have certainly been updates, such as the reference to “our Sun’s family of eight planets” now that Pluto has been demoted from planetary status. But some narrative that could have been changed has been left intact: “Historians tell the story of the rise and fall of the great civilizations of the Old World and the discovery of the New World” could easily have been altered to “and their discovery of what they called the New World,” which would be more in line with contemporary sensibilities. Life Story is probably too simplistic for many modern families, but it does offer some accurate skim-the-surface science and a certain period charm in its illustrations.

     It is to the young members of The We Generation that books such as Burton’s are least likely to appeal. Dalhousie University School of Social Work research professor Michael Ungar believes that today’s children – he has two of his own – gravitate increasingly toward “we” thinking and away from the “me” orientation of their parents (presumably including Ungar himself). Ungar believes it is incumbent on today’s parents not only to learn from their children (about electronic social interconnection, for example) but also to guide them into realms of compassion and community interest. Ungar’s book is a template for a certain form of social and political liberalism – the kind that encourages attending religious and cultural events of people of other beliefs so as to celebrate and foster diversity. A good deal of what Ungar urges is plain and simple unselfishness and cooperation, which are certainly worthy goals: family cooperation to make holiday dinners a success, for instance, or making carefully thought-out gifts for others instead of rushing to the store to buy something mass-produced. But much of The We Generation assumes a certain idyllic lifestyle that has definite political undertones: constantly asking children how their actions make others feel, for example, or arranging play dates with kids of many ages so your children can help younger ones while being assisted by older ones (all of whom presumably share the same social values). The basic idea here – and it is a good one – is to avoid providing children so much that asks nothing of them that they become focused entirely on themselves. Ask more of kids, and expect more of them, and they will deliver more, writes Ungar – from toddlers learning to say thanks for birthday gifts to preteens looking after pets and teenagers planning school events and helping pay for their own clothing. This is essentially a continuation of the argument that Ungar made previously in Too Safe for Their Own Good, and it is an entirely reasonable one: “Helping our children learn to feel compassion for others and to act responsibly is an old-fashioned idea that needs revisiting.” Parents who share Ungar’s worldview will surely find The We Generation uplifting, with its positive viewpoint, “tips lists” of behavior, and such chapter titles as “Monster Homes Make Monstrous Children.” But there is a certain smug certainty underlying Ungar’s prescriptions that will likely be off-putting to readers who are not predisposed to accept his recommendations even before he presents them.

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