Books for the budding skeptic

by Mindy Rhiger

Being a skeptic isn’t that different from being a librarian. Honestly, much of my graduate school experience in my library classes was a skeptic’s dream come true.

Librarians-in-training learn how to research and evaluate information in preparation for life behind a reference desk where we help people find answers to their most pressing questions, which can range from “Where is your bathroom?” to “Why is the sky blue?” and anything in between. As author Neil Gaiman said, “Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.” It’s gotten in my blood, I guess. Or so it seems.

These days, I am a children’s literature specialist in my day job, and I sometimes find myself drawn most to the books that fall in with the skepticism that is part of my chosen profession.

For example, I had to laugh at the lesson-between-the-lines in Buzz by Eileen Spinelli. This picture book, aimed at preschoolers primary graders, is about a young bee who comes upon a newspaper headline that says “Professor Declares Bees Can’t Fly,” and she is convinced that she really can’t fly. She tries and tries, but every time she tries to take off, she crash lands. It isn’t until a friend is in danger that she manages to fly again.

The main lesson readers are to take away is one of self-confidence, but I am more interested in the lesson contained in the newspaper article, of which we see just enough to see that the headline is misleading (apparently, bees shouldn’t be able to fly aerodynamically-speaking). Who says you have to wait until your kids are older to start talking about media literacy? This picture book gets the conversation started.

The Princess and the Pig by Jonathan Emmett delivers a similar lesson with a dose of kid-friendly humor and a princess. But this isn’t your usual pink and girly picture book. In this story, we start with a piglet named Pigmella, and we watch as she is inadvertently switched with the baby princess Priscilla. When the farmer comes home to his wife with a baby girl instead of a piglet, they say “Well, it happens all the time in books!” as they point to some fairy tale or other.

Kids will love to find the fairy tale references, and the slapstick humor involved in watching pig in place of a princess will also be a huge hit with many kids. I loved the chance to talk about the idea that things can happen in stories that don’t happen in real life.

My favorite skeptical picture book, though, is Anton Can Do Magic by Ole Konnecke. This German import has a little boy attempting to imitate The Great Sorcor, a magician. Anton has a hat just like Sorcor, and he wants to make something disappear. First, he tries to work his magic on a tree. When it doesn’t disappear as expected, he tries something smaller: a bird. As he works his magic on the bird, his magic hat, which happens to be a size or two too large, slips over his eyes. Readers know that the bird just flew away, but Anton is convinced he made it disappear. Even my four-year-old caught on right away that Anton was missing something, and she giggled as Anton surprises himself by making friend Luke disappear (So he thinks; readers watched Luke walk away when Anton couldn’t see).

It’s a great example of a picture book where the text and illustrations work together to tell the whole story, and parents might use it to talk with kids about how sometimes what we think we see isn’t really what happened.

With just these three books we could introduce media literacy, fiction vs. nonfiction, and considering all the evidence before jumping to conclusions. Throw Jenny Offill’s 11 Experiments That Failed–with its humorous look at the scientific method–into the mix, and you have the perfect introduction to information literacy.

The librarian in me can’t help but cheer these books on, and the skeptic in me wants to share them with every family I know.

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