A request!

Here’s a really good question from Katrina Refugee:

Due to the unforeseen events of Katrina, my family and I ended up staying with relatives in South Carolina, and my children (for the year) are going to a small Christian school with their cousins (the public schools in this area are quite horrendous and we were trying to ease the transition as best as possible). They will be back in public school next year, but in the meantime have been exposed to some really silly creationist crap in the science classroom.

Can you recommend some reading material for the summer to “wash away” all the stuff they have been exposed to this year? We have diligently discussed all the fallacies of what they are being taught, but I am not a scientist and I would feel much better if they had some appropriate books to read over the summer.

They are aged 15 and 14.

This is a serious request, and I would greatly appreciate any advice you may have.

I’ve put a few ideas below the fold.

That’s a hard age, depending on the temperament of the teenagers. I was a bookworm at that age, so I just spent all my time in the library over the summer, and absorbed it all: if they’re similarly inclined, just point them at my long book list with many recommendations, and let them pick something out.

There are two that I could recommend for teenagers because they have a good narrative and might engage the reader a little more than a textbook-style recitation. Carl Zimmer’s book, At the Water’s Edge: Fish With Fingers, Whales With Legs, and How Life Came Ashore but Then Went Back to Sea(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) is very readable, it’s got a great story, and it’s not polemical at all: it simply tells the tale and explains how we understand the evolution of tetrapods. It’s perfect for some bright teenagers — it’s fairly free of jargon, and yet explains some important concepts well. Richard Fortey is also a very lively writer, and Trilobite: Eyewitness to Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) was fun to read; it might also get them interested in paleontology.

Another possibility is to pick up any of the collections of SJ Gould’s essays, especially one of the older books (he got more and more long-winded later, but his early essays are nice and crisp). They’re short and he covers a lot of different topics, so it’s a good match to the shorter attention spans of kids in the summer. All they have to do is find one that they like in a collection for it to be a good experience.

If they’re into the outdoors, you could try coupling a book to some activity. I’m reading Souder’s biography of Audubon, Under a Wild Sky : John James Audubon and the Making of The Birds of America (amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), for instance, and it would be a good lead-in to birding. Getting kids to tromp around with binoculars and a bird guide is really an excellent way to ease them into science. Especially in the summer, it’s often too much to ask a kid to sit and read, but if you can join it with some good healthy activities you might be able to make some headway.

Anyone else got any suggestions?


  1. LM Wanderer says

    Birding sounds excellent. For me it was rocks and geology. My rock collection was second to none in the neighborhood. I read everything I could find on how to identify rocks.

    LM Wanderer

  2. says

    Tatiana is a good one.

    I thought of birding because if these kids are in Louisiana, I don’t know what there is in the way of interesting geology or fossils.

  3. says

    On the astronomy side of things, there’s a very short document put out by the ASP to address these issues:

    (Web page at astrosociety.org)

    The “updated and expanded color color pdf booklet” is nice. They have print copies too, and it may still be possible to get one’s hands on one.


  4. says

    If they’re interested in birds, Kenn Kaufman’s Kingbird Highway is excellent – it’s about both birding and coming of age, and should be readable by a highschooler. Pete Dunne’s stuff is good, too. It is not really “science” reading but it does make the natural world seem like something fun instead of a textbook chore.

  5. oldhippie says

    It is a long time since I read the “Song of the Dodo”
    by David Quamann, but I remember it being really readable about island diverstity and extinction.

  6. says

    Good book on the basics: “The Theory of Evolution : What It Is, Where It Came From, and Why It Works” (Paperback)
    by Cynthia Mills.

    Also “The Cartoon Guide to Genetics” (Paperback) by Larry Gonick, Mark Wheelis explains stuff like gene expression and trasfer RNA (not completely, but it gives a good framework for understanding it to people like me) and even rebuts that silly Bible story about the black versus the spotted cows.

  7. Elliott Grasett says

    This may be seriously out of fashion and insufficiently scientific, but what about the nature writing of Joseph Wood Krutch?

  8. Dave Godfrey says

    “Earth: an Intimate History” by Richard Fortey is absolutely excellent.

    As something to dip in and out of “A Brief History of Everything” by Bill Bryson is good for the non-specialist.

  9. says

    If the kids in question like creepy-crawlies, they might also enjoy some of the amusing collections of May Berenbaum’s entomological columns, like Ninety-Nine Gnats, Nits, and Nibblers. While they’re not an in-depth text on insect evolution, May’s essays take into account the fossil record, behavioral adaptations, etc. They’re also a fun read, and not too technical for high schoolers or non-biologist adults.

  10. Joe Shelby says

    tv documentaries might help to get away from merely written word stuff, if you have the dvd player working while in exile.

    look for Origins from PBS, Evolution from PBS, the Walking With series from BBC/Discovery, and if you can afford it (its a big set), the original Cosmos.

    I like Stephen Hawkings Universe (more cosmology than evolution), but its a bit on the slow side for the average 15 year olds’ attention span. :)

    The Origins companion book was quite readable for me, but granted I managed through 2 years of physics on my way to my CS degree.

  11. chuko says

    I love Richard Fortey, but I do know a girl, now a biology major, who read Life at 17 and thought it was incredibly dry and boring. That’s just one opinion, but I wonder how most teenagers would respond to it.

  12. Katrina Refugee says

    Thank you so much. Your recommendations are much appreciated. I am printing out the post and comments. I very much like the idea of some bird watching along with reading. And the Dr. Tatiana book sounds fun–I’ll take a look.

    It has been very frustrating witnessing what they are exposed to–initially we intended them just to be at the school as a temporary measure, and then I lost my job and my husband’s graduate school program at Tulane was eliminated, so plans were changed. Luckily, they will be in an excellent school system next year (Chapel Hill, NC) and this year will just be a memory. It did help them develop their debating skills, however.

    This list eases my mind tremendously, and I will be heading to the library ASAP. This is why I love the liberal blogosphere.

    ps–I am a regular reader, just not someone who posts here often (I post at Eschaton under the nym “TJ”).

  13. says

    How about listing some TV shows and documentaries? I read plenty as a child (probably the reason why I gave up creationism and religion at an early age), but I know that handing a bunch of books to most kids is not going to do it. Websites might be good, as well. If one can get the kids interested in knowing more than their teachers, they might jump at the chance to learn just what is wrong with creationism/ID.

    I don’t necessarily mean throwing DVDs at them that are primarily aimed at debunking creationism/ID. I mean programs like (is this what it was called?) Life on Earth, or shows about dinosaur evolution, say. Dog evolution or horse evolution might intrigue some children, as might human evolution. Mostly I’d recommend shows that demonstrate the connectedness of life, with a few intermediates like Archaeopteryx thrown in. Monotremes would be another rich source of evolutionary fascination, since some of their features are obviously primitive and link them to reptiles, while platypuses also have vestigial teeth from which we can show that fossil monotremes (with non-vestigial teeth) and modern toothless adult platypuses are related.

    I was talking to my seven-year-old nephew, who had once told me that they did not believe in “thousands of years” (I had spoken of “thousands” to avoid “millions”, since it is not my place to teach him that his parents are wrong about geology and evolution) while we were looking at a geology book. He saw the horse series, and asked if it showed how horses changed through time. I allowed that it did, with all of the caveats that a proper brother of his mother might put in. What I realized then was that, primarily through watching Animal Planet, he was picking up on evolution, even though he wasn’t allowed to think of the earth as ancient.

    What I’m getting at is that Animal Planet by itself seems to do a pretty good job of exposing heavy viewers to evolution. Many children will not watch much from that channel, of course, but as it is geared toward children there must be many who do watch it.

    Unfortunately, other than Animal Planet and, IIRC, Life on Earth, I don’t have names of shows and DVDs to bring up. I’m hoping that others know of good entertaining science programs and websites that bring up evolution as a matter of course, and which are probably the best bet for teaching most children the actual science of origins. For any kid who is interested, one might bring in books and videos that specifically counter creationism/ID, but I wouldn’t think that the straightforward didactic tack is the best one to take with most children.

    The books are good if you can get them to read. Otherwise, it would be wise to find other media to both entertain and teach.

    Glen D

  14. Joe Shelby says

    Glen D (and others)

    One of the reasons I like the Walking With Beasts set so much is that it includes 2 documentaries on the making of that don’t just go into the special effects (which are astounding), but also the fossil evidence that supports the stories they put on the screen. Of particular interest is the extensive detail on the order in which the whale ancestors were discovered, along with comparisons to modern mammals. Allosaurus (affectionately called “The Ballad of Big Al”) also has an impressive making-of that shows how fossils are analyzed pathologically for disease and damage that can give clues to the animals’ lifestyles beyond simply looking at size and teeth. Big Al had quite a few broken bones in his short life…

    (Sadly, the new “Monsters” one has far less on the paleontology and far too much on the visual effects and public reaction. However, like When Dinsaurs Romed, they do mention the where of the stories so you can hit the ‘net or the books and look up the fossil information yourself.)

    PBS’s Origins also is impressive in going through and talking about the experimental evidence for the big bang, relativity, and some of the current abiogensis theories.

  15. EVinson says

    “I thought of birding because if these kids are in Louisiana, I don’t know what there is in the way of interesting geology or fossils.”

    Lots of….er….sediment.

    Looks like they’ll be in North Carolina, though, where the geology is likely as good as the birding.

  16. Warren Terra says

    I aiways recommend Judson’s “The Eigth Day of Creation”, which should be accessible for most any college stuent or serious high-schooler – though the title might be seen as confrontational in this context.
    The book actually has almost nothing to do with evolution, and I don’t think it even references the idea of creation, but it’s a great way to learn about biology and experimental genetics, and to give the reader a feeling for the practice – and the people – of science, which may help to insulate them from the inaccessible egghead meme.

    In terms of evolution – though I suppose the creationists would call it “microevolution” and thus say it’s moot – “The Beak Of The Finch” is a quick read.

  17. says

    North Carolina should be quite good for geological exploration since, like other east coast states, there are a variety of geological provinces all within a couple hundred miles of each other.

  18. Greg Peterson says

    How about a nice anti-theistic fantasy, the through-the-looking-glass equivalent of the Chronicles of Frigging Narnia? Phil Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy (Golden Compass, Subtle Knife, Amber Spyglass) celebrate religious-opression-free living for kids, and they’re ripping yarns to boot. Nothing to do with evolution, per se, but a nice reminder of how extraordinarily unimportant a god is to a fulfilled, adventurous, meaningful life.

  19. says

    If they are not bookworms, perhaps they can start with “Darwin For Beginners”.

    Chapel Hill/Carrboro school system is the best in state. My kids are studying stem cell research and cloning (7th grade). Of course evolution. Once you move to NC, aggregate your blog on NCblogs.com and start coming to Blogger MeetUps (blogtogether.org).

  20. J-Dog says

    Revolt In 2100 by Robert Heinlein is set in a Theocratic America ruled by a Rev. Nehimiah Scudder. Very interesting, scarry and appropriate for kids IMO. The antagonist starts out as a believer, but comes to see through the fascade of “holiness”, and finally helps rebel against the Religious Right. Should be in the SF section of your Libray, unless the RR in SC has already started with their book-burning program.

  21. Carlie says

    I love the PBS evolution specials. Since they’re teenagers, if you’re not shy about it I’d start with the “Why sex?” episode. It’s engaging and amusing, along with good information on sexual selection, and links it to humans, which is always what interests people the most. More difficult to get, and a little off-topic, but more interesting to teenagers, would be Desmond Morris’ The Human Animal series. He really stretches the boundaries of actual knowledge in science, but is quite fun to watch (or read).
    Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee is a good read. Relatively simple language, and lays out arguments very well.

  22. Sean Foley says

    Carl Zimmer wrote a companion book to the PBS Evolution series that’s pretty good. I’ll second the recommendation for Gould’s earlier essay collections (for my money, Dinosaur in a Haystack is the last one before he really gets long-winded, but others may disagree). Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker might also be a good choice.

  23. Greg Peterson says

    “Last Chance to See” gets my vote as well. I know of no better piece of sunny naturalism. This might sound crazy, because I only exchanged emails with Douglas Adams a few times right before he died and never actually met him, but not a day goes by that I don’t miss him. And kids love that book, too–my teen daughter adored it. It might be worth pointing out to the kids, if they read that book and enjoy it, that Adams saw all that awe and wonder in the natural world while maintaining as firmly as it is possible to that there is no creator behind it.

  24. Alex says

    Speaking of websites, for straightforward anti-creationist stuff, this one is pretty good. The site’s Recommended Reading pages include a few books on evolution, though I don’t know how suitable they’d be for teenagers.

  25. says

    There’s a great series on Earth catastrophes and life’s recovery from them. It’s called “Miracle Planet;” I TiVoed it from the Science Channel, but at the library this week I noticed they had it on video.

    Some of it was over my 7YO science junkie’s head, but I think a lot of it would be perfect for teenagers. It’s definitely not written for kids–my husband and I enjoyed it and learned a lot. Tons of pre-Mesozoic stuff, which is unusual and kind of cool. HTH, and good luck with your search for home/school/employment! My heart goes out to you. (We’ve been in the same boat vis-a-vis countering creationist propaganda from the in-laws.)

  26. says

    I agree with Beak of the Finch. Microevolution or not, it shows how powerful natural selection can be. Plus, the book is an easy yet engrossing read (it is a Pulitzer winner after all).

  27. harlan says

    Jane Goodall’s “In the Shadow of Man” would make for a good summertime read. It’s accessible and beautifully written.

    Another might be “Make Your Own Dinosaur Out of Chicken Bones”, by Chris McGowan.


  28. Patrick Caldon says

    I don’t know how close you are to the sea, but going to rock pools and intertidal rocks, looking at shells, starfish etc. and trying to classify them is excellent for trying to get an inital grasp on real biology. It very naturally leads to the notion of clade (how do we classify a barnacle or look one up in a book?), and diffential selection for environments – e.g. how (and why) do different kinds of barnacles get onto different chunks of rock – how does this lead to a natural selection process?

    Rock pools are nice for the critters having limited mobility. Also it helps teach that “not every animal is a vertebrate” which seems to be an underlying theme of creationism “kind theory”. You can ask how specialized intertidal beasties managed to survive kilometres underwater during the deluge or how a sea squirt walked from anatolia to the USA.

    The other thing is that 14 and 15 year olds often love stuffing about in the water in their summer breaks. Anything which caters to this is a plus. :)

  29. G. Tingey says

    Anything by Dawkins?

    The Devils Advocate is good – even for him – because it is a set of essays.

  30. Brook says

    Knowing so little about the kids in question it’s very hard to make specific suggestions but here’s my stab:

    guides to local flora and fauna. As one of my kids said happily after we saw at least 6 different types of spiders (when we weren’t even looking for spiders per se) “You know mom, the more you look the more you see.” Learning what you’re looking at and how it fits into the local scene is invaluable.

    Anything by Ursula K LeGuin, Elizabeth Moon’s Paksenarrion Trilogy, Octavia Butler, Shari Tepper’s Grass or At the Gates of Women’s Country. Good fantasy can offer a way to challenge our worldview, and may be more appealling to teenagers than non-fiction (I know my 15yo spent last year – his last year homeschooling – holed up in his room reading moountains of sci-fi and fantasy and emerged quite prepared to tackle the social idiocy of hs and completely able to handle the academic side of it too).

    Howard Zinn A People’s History of the US.

    Joy Hakim’s books History of Science – she’s got two volumes out – they’re fantastic. Designed I think for middle schoolers we read and reread them. She’s also got a fantastic History of the US for the same age group. Fundies hate her (which isn’t an automatic pass in my book but it’s nice to have an author who challenges children to think).

    Uncle Tungsten by Oliver Sachs

    Finally two movie/dvd recommendations
    Nothing Like Dreaming by Nora Jacobs, a lovely lovely movie about growing up and the tough choices we all have to make.

    Why We Fight, I can’t think of the director. An excellent look at the military industrial complex and how this entity shapes our lives.

  31. windy says

    What about Dougal Dixon’s After Man or one of the other “evolution in the future” books? They are not always scientifically top-notch, but great fun.

    Other science stuff: Carl Sagan’s Cosmos or Demon-haunted world.