April 17, 2017

Evolution for Preschoolers: An Interview with "Grandmother Fish" Author Jonathan Tweet

Evolution for Preschoolers: An Interview with "Grandmother Fish" Author Jonathan Tweet

In my search for books to introduce science concepts to my 4-year-old twins with autism, I came across a glowing review of Grandmother Fish on the National Center for Science Education's blog ("A New Book to Introduce Evolution to Preschoolers: Grandmother Fish"). The reviewer, Stephanie Keep, praises the science in Grandmother Fish, calling it "heads and shoulders above any evolution book for children that I've ever seen."

I ordered it immediately, excited to have a book for preschoolers that was scientifically accurate. Still, I kept my expectations low regarding the structure and craft of the book itself. Few picture books work well for children with autism the way I wish they would. That's why I started my book review blog in the first place.

But Grandmother Fish met my high standards and then some. It's a five-star book for any young child, very much including kids like mine.

I'm releasing my interview with author Jonathan Tweet to coincide with the lead up to the March for Science in Washington, DC, which I'm so sad to be missing. This is my way of virtually marching. I hope this interview inspires others to make a concerted effort to find a way this week to introduce an appreciation of science to their children—regardless of disability.

MAMA BIBLIOSOPH: When you wrote and published Grandmother Fish you weren't a professional picture book writer; you were a father with a crackerjack idea. I find your journey totally inspiring. Tell us a bit about it.

JONATHAN TWEET: I've always been a very big fan of evolution. And when my daughter was a toddler, I wanted to be able to tell her about the origin of animals and our relation to all living things. And I wanted to make this story as approachable as any origin story from folklore anywhere in the world; emotional and personal, rather than clinical and technical. I noodled away at early drafts of Grandmother Fish on and off for years.

At first I didn't have the mimicry built in—where the text has a child imitate a sound or a movement. Instead of saying that Grandmother Fish could wiggle and then asking the child, "Can you wiggle?" it said something like, "Grandmother Fish had a tail. Do you have a tail?" So that was halfway there. But it's not nearly as fun as a child imitating an animal action or a sound. And it didn't have the pattern that the book has now; that sort of natural rhythm, almost like a song.

Also, we don't have tails. You started focusing on traits that we have in common with our ancestors, rather than what sets us apart as a species.

Exactly. So I was feeling my way there. Luckily I had a friend who was in children's publishing who looked at my early manuscript and let me know that it was not ready for prime time. And I've done a lot of play testing as a game designer, so I know that you really have to listen to feedback. It would have been easy to brush off that comment, but I didn't.

For awhile I couldn't tell what was wrong with it. Then finally, years later, I was literally sitting in my hot tub a month after getting fired from my last corporate job, and I had that eureka moment. I realized I could write the story so that kids copied the motions of animals and mimicked their sounds, rather than just labeling their anatomy. And really, I shook all over and said, "YOW!" or something. I realized right there that I had solved it.

That's amazing! And those gross motor imitations—to use a term that autism therapists have taught me—are really perfect. What they do for kids with autism is add a sensory component, and some kids on the spectrum may need that to be able to pay attention to a book. Same with the call-and-response aspect to repeating those animal sounds. It engages kids who are more distractible.

Interesting. Sure. And that's what I had learned in teaching Sunday School at a Unitarian church. I didn't have professional training, but I have seen little kids start off indifferent to the book, but as I keep reading get more and more into it, because, as you say, you've got these gross motor actions that grab their attention.

And you build upon them too, so there's repetition. First you have two actions, then you add two more and have four, and then you add another two more and you have six. So it gets really silly after awhile with all the wiggling and chomping and cuddling and hooting and so on. And there's lots of word and phrasing repetition too with every story starting off with "This is Grandmother So-and-So." I'm a huge fan of the cyclical structure.

90% of the book is a repeating structure and then you slot in a new verb or attribute. Once you have read Grandmother Fish's story, you know how Grandmother Reptile's and Mammal's and Ape's and Human's are going to play out.

In doing this, I was thinking about how rituals help people learn. And how rituals were an early part of how humans communicated, and how mimicry is part of that. I think it all fits a pattern and that it's really powerful and I'm glad you agree.

Well, you thought your way to or stumbled upon the things that I look for in books for my children. So well done!

Let's get back to evolution. You said you were always fascinated by it. Me too. I'd love for you to talk about the need your books fills.

Yes, I mean, that's why I worked on it for so long. There's nothing else like it. If there had been a book like this out there, I would have just gone out and bought it.

From what I can tell, most of the other books about evolution are for slightly older children—grade school and up I would say. They often use a tree metaphor and a timeline bar or a pictogram to show the passage of time. You did something really different with Grandmother Fish. You decided to show the human evolution story in chunks; the fish chunk, the reptile chunk, and so on and so forth. And to show the passage of time, you chop out a "long" from your repeating phrase a "a long, long, long, long, long time ago." as we move through the stories and get closer to the human era.

The other unique thing you did is to tell the human evolution story starting with a fish. Other books seem to choose a starting ancestor that more closely resembles a primate, if not an actual primate. So tell me about these choices.

I started with a fish probably for unconscious reasons—it felt right. But what I can explicate is that it's the earliest ancestor that a kid can sort of recognize. If you go back earlier, it's like an eel or a worm or something. A fish also has huge symbolic value. The boundary between living in the water and breathing in water and living on the land and breathing in air is significant. It's one of the milestones of our evolutionary story that is iconic. The ape is one iconic image. The fish is the other. The fish-like creature with legs crawling out of the water.

Right. The fish, but with legs, as a pro-evolution symbol.

The other thing that I love is paradox and irony. So I was attracted to the title Grandmother Fish because grandmothers are warm and soft and loving, while fish are cold and slimy and alien. So there's way more punch to that contrast.

If you teach kids that we are evolved from apes, then all the monkeys and apes are family. But if you teach kids we are evolved from fish then everything is our family—sharks and lampreys and everything else.

Gotcha. It doesn't other the rest of the animal world so much.

Exactly. It's all about how we are all related. I want kids who have this book to look at the family dog and the bird in a tree and intuit how we are related and where we all are on this evolutionary journey. But you have to use animals that kids see and know so that it's meaningful to them. And I did this in discreet chunks because it's better story-telling.

I appreciate all that, by the way. The traditional evolutionary tree with a ton of animals on it is often too much, overwhelming, especially for kids on the spectrum like mine. Having it broken down into smaller, focused areas—I was happy with that choice. I was able to tackle it with my kids. It wasn't visually chaotic.

Let's chat about the science of the book and the science concepts that the book helps illustrate. You don't use a lot of jargon-y words. The word "evolution" is in the subtitle of the book, but not in the text. You don't use the words "natural selection" or "extinction." But you are introducing the ideas of a trait and mutation. Grandmother Fish has many babies with new and different traits. You simplify this process to two generations between Grandmothers, but the ideas are there. What science concepts are you hoping preschoolers will pick up on?

In the back of the book, I do have all the comments on the science of how natural selection works or what-have-you for the parent to explain to the child when they are ready.

But the core message is that we're all related. That's the warm, touchy-feely story of Grandmother Fish. It should ground human children in the tapestry of life. Kids grow up in such an unnatural environment compared to what we did for most of human history. I really just want kids to look at animals and feel kinship.

But I do think that one of the nice things about this book is that when a child is ready to understand a bit more, you can return to Grandmother Fish and the core concepts are there.

That's right. And the book should prepare a child. A child should gain a context to slot it all in. I believe that preschoolers need a scientifically accurate template to understand the animal world. So if you learn about a dinosaur or a squid or how the heart works, you have the context of a long, long, long time ago, and because of Grandmother Fish you know about variation and change in populations over time.

Otherwise you just have an essentialist template where humans are one kind of thing and animals are another kind of thing. So yes, I want to get in there before kids develop misunderstandings.

Have you gotten much push back?

Well, I'm hoping to get banned in Texas.

Sure. Otherwise you'll wonder if you did something wrong.

Well, the creationist with the ark in Kentucky doesn't like the book.


Ha. Yes. I've at least risen to that level. And I'm on social media, so, fairly regularly, people pop up to challenge me. My attitude is that I'm happy for them to write whatever book they want to for their kids. It's a free country.

There are certainly already many books out there for preschool aged kids that explain the human origin story using a biblical creation myth.

Right. And the big difference is that in my story the kids learn to see the evidence: in their own anatomy, in their own behavior, and in the anatomy and behavior of other animals. So it's grounded in experience and what they can see with their own eyes.

On another subject, one thing that was tricky for me is that at the end, when we meet Grandmother Human, we learn that she walks on two feet and talks and tells stories.

It was clear to me that you and your illustrator understood the importance of showing that being human isn't strictly defined by walking. Your illustrator included a drawing of a woman in a wheelchair on the final page.

But it took me awhile to address the talking part. My two kids have autism, and one of them is pretty low verbal. Now, my low-verbal son can talk a bit, but both my kids go to autism schools and have classmates who are completely nonverbal.

What I decided to do, ultimately, was to interpret "talk" as "communicate." So I would ask my sons, "Can you talk?" (Yes.) "How does your friend Betty talk?" (iPad!) "That's right! She uses her iPad to talk." "And what am I doing right now?" (Signing!) "That's right! You can use sign language to talk with your hands!"

This totally worked for me, but did you think about the nonverbal human experience in writing the book, or is this the first time someone's brought this up with you?

It's the first time this has come up for me. But you know, one of the cardinal rules of evolution is that in any population there is variety. So whatever is true of a population as a whole isn't true of everyone in that population.

The illustrator, Karen Lewis, had a great passion for making sure that human diversity was well represented. She poured her heart into making sure those pages turned out right.

She did a great job. It's beautiful.

So a final question, returning to the science. This Saturday, April 22nd, is Earth Day and the March for Science in Washington, DC. And I'm sure there are many people reading this who, like me, are stuck at home with small children and can't travel to DC to march.

I'm posting this interview to kind of virtually march. I'm hoping that other parents read it and think about how to introduce evolution to their young children, or other science concepts. Can you leave us with some thoughts about the challenges ahead for science and education and what parents reading this can do?

Parents can talk to schools and teachers and librarians about science and about evolution. I met a librarian recently who believed that she wasn't allowed to talk about evolution without also talking about creationism! She really thought that was a rule or a law. It wasn't even that she agreed with it, she was just scared.

So ask what your local school's policies are. Ask when your child will start learning about evolution and other science topics.

And of course, they can buy their child's school library a copy of your book!


You can learn more about Jonathan Tweet by visiting the Grandmother Fish website or by liking his Grandmother Fish page on Facebook. And look out for the release of his next project with illustrator Karen Lewis, Clades, an animal-matching card game based on evolutionary relationships.