A Giraffe in the Jungle: One Woman's Quest to Right the Scientific Wrongs in Picture Books

buddingbio.jpg
Art by Katy Castronovo

When Kristine Duehl announced she was having a son, the biology Ph.D. candidate was showered with special-interest picture books. But then Duehl cracked the books, and an alarming trend popped out.

"I started noticing all of the scientific errors in the books," the 33-year-old recalled. "We're talking order-level differences."

Like a true scientist, Duehl did some digging and formed a hypothesis: that for many kids, the errors contained in picture books cause gaps in scientific understanding that stick into adulthood. She enlisted fellow mom and illustrator Katy Castronovo, and the pair created the Budding Biologist series, a set of children's books that seek to right the wrongs. Where do I live?, the second work of Duehl's , came out mid-June, and attempts to explain the concept of biomes in a manner both fun and scrupulously correct.

Did she succeed? The jury's still out, to be honest. We found the book's straightforward descriptions dry and unchallenging, with questions tacked awkwardly onto the end of every page like Eeyore's tail.

But Duehl maintains that the books are interesting to younger kids, and that those questions serve an important purpose.

Her book won't replace that awesomely implausible gorilla-outwits-a-zookeeper book anytime soon, but Budding Biologist may yet be a worthy addition to your child's shelf.

SFW: What prompted you to start work on the Budding Biologist series?

Duehl: When my son was born in 2010 I was a Biology grad student working on my Ph.D. at the university of Florida, and everybody gave me picture books on biology. I started noticing all of the scientific errors in the books. At first I started laughing, like, of course they'd put a spider in a book about insects. But then I was like, they're including snails, and frogs -- we're talking order-level differences in the way animals are organized! One morning I was very sleep-deprived and I was reading a book about baby rainforest animals. And I looked at it and I was like, "there's a giraffe in a rainforest. And I was like, 'wow, I've never seen it before. A giraffe would get caught in all the vines!'"
My husband's a biologist and he laughed, but it concerns me as an educator. It's the same kind of misconception I see in college students. And I realized these misconceptions stay all the way through adulthood. So adults who read these are like, "oh, spiders aren't insects?"

Most parents don't have the background to know -- especially nonfiction books they assume are vetted and accurate. I took a semester off for maternity leave and I thought, "I can do something about this. I can make a book I'm proud to read to my son."

I paired up with Katy, and we've been trying to make books that are fun -- that kids like, but are scientifically accurate. We don't want to read a textbook to your six-year-old.

SFW: What's your scientific background?

Duehl: I did a botany undergraduate degree, and went for a masters in botany doing plants, and my master's was in ecology-biology. I was looking at plant-insect interactions. In my heart I'm a plant person; I love plants. I was looking at how plants defend themselves against the insects that eat them. Ph.D from university of Florida, masters and undergrad at North Carolina State University.

cheetahbuddingbio2.jpg
Art by Katy Castronovo

SFW: What kind of research went into this book?

Duehl: As a Ph.D in Biology, most of it is stuff that I know. I did have to do research, though. The topic of biomes isn't as simple as it sounds; we still have debates on what biomes are, and how to classify them. I did have to decide what level to target, keeping in mind the cognitive skills of an elementary student. We decided to target it simply.

That's the kind of research that goes into our books. We have an adviser on our little team, Karen Boley, who has a masters' in early childhood education. She's able to bring my complicated words and ideas down and go, "no, that's too difficult."

cheetahbuddingbio.jpg
Art by Katy Castronovo

SFW: I've noticed that there's a question on every page of your book. Does this have significance?

Duehl: Part of my degree's focus was on how to lead inquiry-based education -- that is, you're asking questions of the students before giving them the answer. The traditional method is giving them facts and letting them spit those facts back out, it doesn't really train students on how to think. As a scientist, I do not go out in the world knowing the answer to my questions. It's more, I go out wondering, and then I go out and figure it out. It starts making kids realize, look, there's something that goes beyond what I'm learning here, that I can figure out for myself.

SFW: Growing up as a child, what were your favorite books?

Duehl: I'm still a really big fan of Dr. Seuss books. The first book I ever had memorized was "Green Eggs and Ham," and I remember trying to read it for my little sister -- that still holds a very tender place in my heart.

Being a scientist, though, imagination is not my strongest suit. I find nonfiction very liberating because I stick to the facts. My challenge is getting those ideas across in a way that my audience, being very young, will understand.

SFW: What's the future of the series?

Duehl: We're about halfway done with the third book about animal adaptations. While this book focuses on biomes, the next is focused on animals themselves, and adaptations to their environment. Being a botanist I'm really excited to do a book about plants, and I'm hoping that will be the next book in the series.

But there are an endless number of ideas in biology, so I see this going for a long time.

Pick up Duehl's book on Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble, as well as various local bookstores; her website, www.buddingbiologist.com, has free lesson plans for teachers as well as coloring pages and other activities.

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