Tuesday, June 10, 2008

p23 Science Questions and Review

Baha'i Children's Books

By John Taylor; 2008 June 10, 06 Nur, 165 BE


It is challenging to be the father of an eight-year-old boy. When Silvie was this age we were immersed in a world of Gabby and Bea, a fictional wolf and fox; everything that happened or was about to happen was translated into a Gabby and Bea story. With Thomas life is more like being on the firing line of a quiz show. I was dunned with questions about minerals and material science for so long that when I was in a hobby store and saw a periodic table in the form of a place mat I bought it. Now whenever I am called to distinguish between the properties of copper and titanium, I just refer Tomaso to the chart. Strangely, his big sister Silvie disapproves of all this. She feels that Thomas should not be introduced to science that is more advanced than even her grade level. It is not "age appropriate," in her opinion.


A couple of months ago the queries turned to the Jeopardy category labelled "Natural History." I found out soon enough how thin my general knowledge about the evolution of this planet really is. I could not distinguish between the Permian and the Jurassic if my life depended on it. Although I think all the time about the environment and world federalism, I was shown to be surprisingly ignorant about how Mother Earth got to be the way she is. Fortunately, our library has a copy of a four DVD series called "Miracle Planet," which explains it all in wonderful detail. It is recent enough to incorporate the major revisions that came in this science over the past five years. I highly recommend it. Here is their own summary of this Canada-Japan collaboration.


"Over its more than 4-billion-year history, the earth has been home to repeated violent climactic changes, which have caused mass extinctions. And yet, life has survived. In fact, these same catastrophes helped bring about the evolution of life, from the simplest microbes to the complexity and diversity that is found on the planet today. Featuring location footage, interviews with the world's foremost scientists and cutting-edge computer technology, Miracle Planet recounts the profound and gripping story of Earth's mysterious evolution and reveals the surprising roles that sheer chance has played in the development of life. Narrated by Christopher Plummer, it is an exhilarating virtual tour of our planet's first 4 billion years." <http://www.ipexview.com/solution/videos/National_Film_Board_of_Canada/Miracle_Planet/52/>


The other day Tomaso rushed home with a group of his little friends asking for the Miracle Planet DVD so that he could prove to them that the moon crashed into the earth only a few billion years ago. I had to explain that I had taken it back to the library.


Inundated as I am with science questions at random times of the day, I have learned to adapt. Here is a bit of advice if you happen to run into a similar eight-year-old. Go onto YouTube and look up Carl Sagan. Somebody has chopped up his Cosmos series into handy little segments, ready to quickly answer science stumpers. This morning I had to explain what a million times a million is (ten to the 12th, as far as I knew there is no name for it), but thanks to Carl I did not have to explain what a Googol is, or a Googolplex. I had tried many times but Sagan's demonstration is graphic and unforgettable -- especially if you watch it over and over as we have.


Last night Silvie was away on a class trip and for our Baha'i class I read to Tomaso an age-appropriate, big-sister-approved book from our Baha'i library, "Guebe and the Toy Truck," by Joseph Shepard. It is a story of a couple of girls who are mocked by local boys, proud of their home-made trucks. They decide to show them up by making their own toy car, and improving upon the design of the boys' trucks. The story dragged for me; it was slow going, and I had to explain that in Africa kids are lucky, they get to make their own toys out of wood, instead of getting them pre-imagined, shrink-wrapped, pre-made all plastic, all the time -- all but pre-played toys. How exotic it is to hear of my own childhood when I made my own boats and bows and arrows out of wood. Reading it, Tomaso actually picked out a regionalism in the author's choice of words; I had to explain that it was evidently written by Persian Baha'i pioneers whose native language is not English.


I must say, I was prejudiced against this book, not on its own merits but because this and other Baha'i picture books are priced at least five times higher than similar non-Baha'i books, most of which are more lavishly illustrated and professionally written. I simply cannot afford to spend thirty bucks on a thirty page booklet. Plus, it was had a slow pace. I tried not to show boredom in my voice as I read. When I put it down I was flabbergasted when Tomaso gave it a firm thumbs up. He liked it so much that he asked to take it to school to show to his teacher, an honor conferred on only one or two other books in his short reading career. I must say that if God Himself had come down and presented a book to me on a silver platter when I was eight years old, it would never have entered my head to share it with my teacher. “Teacher” and “enemy” were synonyms in my mind.


One of my first Baha'i teachers taught me a valuable lesson: there is great power in reading a little every day. You can go through the entire body of English language Writings of the three Central Figures in just two years using this method -- or at least you could back in 1975 when he taught that first summer school. Anyway, I am using this method with our children's classes and it works very effectively; we have gone through several fairly thick children's books in only about seven months. At one point I tried reading them an adult book, Furutan's Stories of Baha'u'llah, but I could tell by the looks on their faces that it was not working, so I dropped it about three quarters of the way through and finished it on my own. I notice that the American BDS is selling it in their youth section, but don't you believe it.


Two stars have emerged in my short Baha'i children's class teaching career from among Baha'i children's writers, Hitjo Garst and Jacqueline Mehrabi. Garst is a children's class teacher in Holland who does better research than most adult Baha'i historians I have read. He wrote the classic children's biography "From Mountain to Mountain," and as soon as it was available I ordered his newly released biography of the Master, "The Most Mighty Branch." This is an excellent book, in spite of the fact that George Ronald seems to have fired its copy editors and left it up to its authors to do their own proofreading. Computers have not made this profession obsolete, and it shows. It is startling for me -- who thought I had read all the primary sources on the Master in English -- to find new things cropping up, un-footnoted, in a children's book. I can only assume that there are books in Europe that are not available here.


Jacqueline Mehrabi has written a couple of dozen kid's books but I have seen only three or four. These few are of such a high standard that I will purchase everything of hers that I can get my hands on. Her selection of stories of the Master, and her treatment of the obligatory prayer, I have reviewed before. The latter, Remembering the Moon, is one of the best Baha'i books, for adults or children, that I have read in many years. I wish that I had seen it when I was a new Baha'i, and I would therefore like to see it in the hands of every new declarant. If you do not understand why and how to do the Obligs, you have not tried the Baha'i Faith, qua faith.


Right now we are going through Mehrabi's simplified discussion of evolutionary theory called "Remember the Rainbow." Having just seen Miracle Planet, I was conscious how her story of life's development slightly contradicts the latest findings. For example, fish and gilled creatures came after the first land creatures, not before. But the kids did not notice that, they were so charmed by the three letter names the author gives to the stages of primitive life. It all started with Omi the Amoeba, Fin the fish, Tad the lizard-like amphibian, and Utang -- breaker of a billion year long evolutionary tradition of three-letter names -- the primate. After that, Mehrabi describes the succession of Manifestations of God, a very interesting juxtaposition of human evolution with that of life in general. Having learned the "Manifestation song" the kids were very pleased to find that she follows the same order, Adam, Noah, Abraham, Krishna, etc. This book gets a high rating from me.


What is 13-year-old Silvie's favorite? Lately she gave glowing reviews to "The Light World," written and illustrated by Heather Niderost. Typical teen, at first she did not want to hear about it, especially when she found out that it was a true story about death, and, worse, a ten year old boy crushed by a truck while riding on his bicycle, and, worse still, the story is written by his mother. During the first few pages we had long discussions about their uncle and aunt, my brother and sister, Bonnie and Tommy, who were killed 18 months before I was born at a similar age by a train, whose graveside we visited last year during Aunt Marguerite's funeral. That alone made the book worthwhile. Once we got past the family history, we continued. The deceased boy explains what it is like to enter the Abha kingdom -- he calls it the light world -- and then in his "light body" to revisit us benighted mortals. It then discusses the Writings about life after death. The boy speaks in typical informal vernacular and ends his story saying, "Look me up when you get here, okay?" We each said a prayer for him and the deceased we know, and by then Silvie was positively gushing over the book. I found it inspirational too -- if you can trust the intuitions of a grieving mother who has immersed herself in the Writings to do with the next world. Actually, probably as reliable a source as any, now that I think of it.

I have a feeling that it helped that this book is written and published in
Canada -- in fact by Nine Pines Publishing, whose churning presses in New Lisgaard, Ontario we visited when Silvie was very little. There is something special about a locally produced piece of literature.


If somebody out there wants to teach the faith in a way that would have far-reaching results in future generations, here is what I suggest: Get a group of Baha'i artists and children's authors together and write a series of basic stories under the GNU public license. Then put the text of the stories onto a print-on-demand site like Lulu.com and allow each NSA or region to adapt the text to local needs. With modern technology there is no price premium for small runs any more. Print one, print a thousand, the cost per item is the same. Doing it this way I am sure that much better children's books could be produced, perfectly adapted to local conditions, for half or less than the ordinary Baha'i children's book.


I have ordered a new batch of both adult and children's books from the United States Baha'i Distribution Service and will be reviewing them in due course. I am especially looking forward to a new edition of Promulgation, which promises a new talk of the Master, given in Montreal. I eagerly anticipate seeing this but at the same time I dread the job of going through all my notes and writings and changing every page number to conform to the pagination in the new edition. Even with search and replace capability, this is a daunting task. But as my old historiography teacher told us, the duty of paying attention to correct sources is like chastity, hard, unpleasant but absolutely necessary.

1 comment:

Anne said...

I enjoyed reading this. I've been following the New Atheist discussions on scientific education vs. intelligent design and was very refreshed to see someone writing about choosing books and DVD's on evolution and choosing spiritual and religious children's books in the same article.