September 13, 2018
(+++) SCHOOL DAYS
Cece Loves Science. By Kimberly Derting and Shelli R. Johannes. Illustrations by Vashti Harrison. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Shark Dog and the School Trip Rescue! By Ged Adamson. Harper. $17.99.
On the First Day of First Grade. By Tish Rabe. Pictures by Sarah Jennings. Harper. $9.99.
Over-simplification of what it means to go to school is normal in books for young readers and is frequently done in the name of encouraging them and being relentlessly upbeat. The technique is now being applied not only to school in general but also, specifically, to STEM – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – and, even more specifically, to STEM as it relates to girls, who are under-represented in the STEM fields. It is generally accepted that it would be good to encourage more girls to study STEM, and books such as Cece Loves Science are intended to do just that. The question is whether the over-simplifying of the topic will make more girls want to engage in STEM studies or will quickly bring them frustration when they find out how far from reality a book like this proves to be. Certainly Kimberly Derting and Shelli R. Johannes are well-meaning in their presentation, and Vashti Harrison’s illustrations nicely complement their text, in which super-smart Cece (who is, unnecessarily but in accordance with current political correctness, biracial) constantly asks questions and is always encouraged by her teacher to do so. The teacher (unsurprisingly named Ms. Curie) tells Cece’s class about “famous scientists from history,” the first being Caroline Herschel – one deliberate over-simplification and girl-oriented element of the story involves making Herschel (1750-1848) the No. 1 scientist mentioned, so parents should make sure they know about her in case children ask who she was and what she did. The main theme of the book involves Cece and her best friend, Isaac, teaming up for a science project: “Science is all about possibilities,” write Derting and Johannes, which is not quite right but will do for young readers. Eventually Cece and Isaac decide to study whether dogs like vegetables, using Cece’s dog (named, inevitably, Einstein) as their subject. The book includes several “worksheets” as the study progresses through stages including observation (how Einstein usually behaves) and experimenting (offering different vegetables alone or disguised). Einstein will not eat vegetables, and Cece becomes frustrated because “our project was boring,” but then she notices that Einstein likes bananas – and she and Isaac make a banana smoothie that also includes vegetables. Einstein consumes it, and Cece and Isaac celebrate, and the conclusion is that “real scientists have fun finding answers.” Well, yes, but the authors of Cece Loves Science either do not understand or do not care how scientific studies really work. Cece and Isaac force their project to come out as they wish – scientists do not do that; it is a major ethical breach. Also, the project’s topic is whether dogs, plural, eat vegetables, and all Cece and Isaac actually discover is that one specific dog will eat vegetables under certain specific circumstances. In other words, the whole premise of Cece Loves Science is flawed – in the name of creating a sufficiently intriguing story to get girls interested in STEM studies. The book is to be commended for furthering a worthy cause and featuring attractive characters doing age-appropriate activities that may indeed get real-world children interested in learning about science. But it falls very far short of being an introduction, even a very simple introduction, to the way science and scientists really work – and may therefore open the STEM door to girls who will find, when they become involved, that reality is very different from its portrayal by Derting and Johannes.
There is nothing realistic about Shark Dog – a playful puppy-bodied pet with a fin on top and huge sharklike front end and mouth – and certainly nothing realistic about the life of the “famous explorer” who discovered Shark Dog during a voyage with his daughter, to whom Shark Dog promptly attached his affection. The original Shark Dog book was simply a romp, and a very amusing one. Ged Adamson’s second story about the character is less successful, altgough there is still considerable fun in Shark Dog and the School Trip Rescue! Shark Dog is invited on a class trip and soon gets into the spirit of things – just as any dog would. Class members take photos of a bird perched on Shark Dog’s fin, watch as Shark Dog leaps into a frog-filled pond, and see Shark Dog roll around in mud when a sudden rainstorm blows in. Shark Dog makes amusing messes several times, flinging water and frogs about and shaking himself to get the mud off (and onto the kids). But nothing he does is particularly sharklike, and that is the problem here: substitute any ordinary dog for Shark Dog and this story would not change at all. In fact, when the class finds footprints and Shark Dog sniffs them and then tracks them to their origin – a bear cub trapped by a downed tree – there is no reason at all for this to be a Shark Dog book. Yes, Shark Dog helps the class lift the tree enough so the cub can get his leg out and head into the woods (apparently quite unhurt) – but a book about any dog on a school field trip would have exactly the same event and exactly the same outcome. Shark Dog then leads the class back to the school bus for the return trip, just as any dog would, and all ends happily. Kids who find Shark Dog engaging will enjoy seeing all the new pictures of him that Adamson draws, and all the new scenes in which he appears. But unlike the first Shark Dog book, this second one is really just a book about an unusual-looking dog: nothing at all is made of anything sharklike except for his appearance. So yes, there is fun to be had in Shark Dog and the School Trip Rescue! But it is generic fun, not anything specific to Shark Dog.
On the First Day of First Grade is a generic-enjoyment book as well. Tish Rabe here becomes the latest author to adapt “The 12 Days of Christmas” into a different season, and here the emphasis – not really realistically – is on everything being fun all the time: “On the first day of first grade I had fun right away.” Of course, parents and teachers want first grade to be enjoyable, but the constant emphasis on fun is a bit over-the-top here in its repeated references to “laughing and learning all day,” which is the most-often-repeated line. Still, one should not be too Scrooge-like about this well-intentioned book, pleasantly illustrated by Sarah Jennings. The second day here involves helping in class, the third is “choosing books to read,” the fourth is about planting seeds, the fifth is “telling the time,” and so on – with each earlier experience repeated, just as in the well-known song. The gender-balanced, racially assorted class – the norm nowadays in books for young readers – plays music, throws a ball, puts on a play and more, all to the song’s cadence and always with kids having a wonderful time with whatever they are doing. The objective, of course, is to encourage first-graders (or, really, any young school-age children) to find the fun in all the things that happen in school, and that is certainly an unexceptionable desire even if it is less than realistic for all children. Kids who may be nervous or worried about school will probably not find anything encouraging here, since everyone shown has a constant great time and there is nothing in the book to show someone who is not having fun how to enjoy school more. So On the First Day of First Grade is really for upbeat kids who may have some slight trepidation about school and need reassurance that everything will be all right. The book does, however, have a very disappointing conclusion, with a final page that says, “First grade is so fun!” That is simply illiterate (and never mind that some consider it to be acceptable slang). “Fun” is a noun, and Rabe knows it: “I had fun right away.” So the conclusion should be, “First grade is so much fun!” Both Rabe and her editor could use a little remedial time having fun in school, in a grade where parts of speech are taught.