I'm elated to announce that my Junior Skeptic-based book Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be is a 2011 nominee for the prestigious Silver Birch® Nonfiction Award! This is a tremendous honor (for which I thank my illustration collaborator Jim W. W. Smith, my editor Valerie Wyatt at Kids Can Press, producer Pat Linse — and the Skeptics Society for making the project possible in the first place).
Each year, the Ontario Library Association showcases selected titles for its Forest of Reading® program — a heavily-promoted recreational reading initiative, widely supported throughout Ontario's public schools and public libraries. Among the 250,000 participating young readers, kids who read a minimum of five of the 10 books in their reading category will become eligible to vote for the award in that category.
The Forest of Reading program runs throughout the Spring, culminating with award ceremonies in front of an audience of several thousand at Canada’s largest literary event for younger readers: the Festival of Trees™ at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto (May 11 and 12, 2011).
Last year's Silver Birch Fiction Award winner describes the experience:
I’ve never seen anything like it. More to the point, I’ve never seen thousands of kids screaming — like really screaming – about books.
Which is not to say I wasn’t warned beforehand. The organizers, as well as other writers who had attended the ceremony in the past, all told me what to expect. The massive stage. The lights. The screaming (did I mention the screaming?) children. “It’s like being a rock star for a day,” they told me.
Nomination is the Victory
For my own part, I've been walking around in a sort of daze this weekend — not because Evolution could perhaps win (competition in my category is stiff, including two other books from my own publisher, Kids Can Press) but because it's already achieved more than I could have hoped. This nomination means that the topic of evolution will be massively promoted to grade school kids throughout Canada's largest public school system.
Thanks to my colleagues at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, my related Portuguese-language book Evolução was distributed for free to thousands of public school students in Portugal in 2009. But despite recommendations from the (US) National Science Teachers Association, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and National Center for Science Education, the nomination to Ontario's Forest of Reading program is Evolution's first major breakthrough into English-speaking schools.
This matters, in outreach terms. Ontario's educational system in particular has struggled (and sometimes failed) to give any reasonable coverage to the topic of evolution. As recently as 2000, Ontario curricula omitted evolution entirely. Even today, the central organizing principle of biology is taught only as a component of Biology 11. That seems insufficient for a province where only 59% of adults agree that “Human beings evolved from less advanced life forms over millions of years” (Angus Reid 2008 — PDF).
More to the point, biological evolution is not mentioned at all in Grades 1 through 10! (See the current Grade 1 – 8 Science and Technology curriculum PDF and current Grade 9 – 10 Science curriculum PDF.)
No matter how I think about this, it only becomes more humbling and incredible: this Spring, for many thousands of grade school kids, my book will be the only class-supported exposure to the subject of evolution.
This project was a long road: years of nights-and-weekends work, out of pocket expense (for me, and for producer Pat Linse), and knocking on the doors of publishers who found fundamental biology too controversial.
I knew all that had paid off in the deepest possible way the moment parents started writing to tell me, “another month has passed, and she's still having me read the book to her in the tub.” That's what this is all about. The book has reached a lot of youngsters, and it ain't done yet. (A Slovenian translation is on sale now, and a Korean edition is on its way.)
Looking at this project as a science outreach success, I'm reminded of the heat it took from hardline atheists. At issue was my brief passage explaining, “Science is our most reliable method for sorting out how the natural world functions, but it can’t tell us what those discoveries mean in a spiritual sense.” (See long comment threads at this post and this followup post). Critics argued that my children's book about the history of life should either have attacked theism, or else ignored one of the most common student questions about evolution.
That tiny subsection remains my honest answer. I would not, with the benefit of hindsight, do more than tweak it today. Still, in light of the criticism and the book's success, it's interesting to reflect: would Evolution have reached so many kids if I'd approached that topic in some other way? I suppose we'll never know.