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The Origin of “Evolution”

by Daniel Loxton, Nov 24 2009

A behind-the-scenes peek at the long road to Evolution — the Junior Skeptic-based illustrated kids’ book due out in February, 2010

Once upon a time my wife and I sat down for scrambled eggs with Michael Shermer and Julia Sweeney.

We were a little giddy. It was our first time in Las Vegas — and our honeymoon. I was a lifelong skeptic attending my first skeptics’ conference: The Amazing Meeting 2, hosted by the James Randi Educational Foundation. (300 skeptics in one room! Imagine it!) And now we were having breakfast with a genuine movie star.

We were chattering away over coffee when Michael clapped his hands together. “Alright,” he said, suddenly all business, every bit the dynamic leader. “Can we get these Junior Skeptic books out this year?”

At that time I was still settling into my role as writer-illustrator for Junior Skeptic (the kids’ science section bound into every issue of Skeptic magazine). Shortly before the conference, Pat Linse (Art Director and co-publisher of Skeptic, and surely the least-known major player in the skeptical movement) had conceived an ambitious plan for me: a series of full-color spin-off books based upon Junior Skeptic. These books would comprise an encyclopedic, lavishly illustrated, multi-volume critique of paranormal claims — attractive, accessible for kids, and with the production values to truly compete in the marketplace of ideas.

“Well,” I said, “Here’s the thing. Pat wants each volume to collect four issues of Junior Skeptic. At book density, that’s probably 124 pages per volume. Each page needs about two illustrations. Times four books, that’s 1000 glossy full-color illustrations.”

We all digested this. “This isn’t much like a regular academic book project,” I said. “Think of it like making a feature film. I’ll have to hire help somehow, which we haven’t got budget for. I still have to research and write most of the Junior Skeptic material we’re going to adapt. Even at just a few hundred illos, this project will take several years.”

The Long Road

My movie analogy was more apt than I knew. This project was too big to publish in-house. We needed a big commercial publisher, and (just as in Hollywood) that’s the tricky part. You may have Lord of the Rings in your head, but without the right studio, there’s no movie.

And so started a long process with three prongs:

  1. I continued to produce Junior Skeptic on the established quarterly schedule (with all art created in book-ready full color, despite Junior Skeptic‘s greyscale format);
  2. Pat Linse and I hired cartoonist and 3D computer modeling guru Jim W. W. Smith to help me create hundreds of additional illustrations for spin-off books;
  3. Starting with Michael’s contacts and insight, I set to work trying to find the right commercial publisher.

Soon, my weekends and late nights were consumed by this contracting process: cold letters, negotiations, referrals, potential deals. I made rewarding contacts at some of the biggest kids’ publishers in the US — wonderful editors who loved what we were doing, and would have loved to give our project a home. But it was a lot for a publishing house to take on: our proposed series was big, 100% skeptical, with hefty production requirements — and with me (then a first-time book author) at the helm.

Months of such conversations flew by, and then years. And all throughout, we just kept working.

The Dawn of Evolution

We discovered further challenges as we went along. One was that we couldn’t just pick one umbrella topic — say, cryptozoology — and simply make all the content for a book on that topic. Junior Skeptic requires variety: we couldn’t cover the yeti, and then immediately turn around and do an issue on Bigfoot. We needed to mix it up: the yeti, then the Bermuda Triangle, then the Curse of King Tut….

Along the way, I did a two-issue story on evolution. This was a straight science treatment, rather than Junior Skeptic‘s usual direct criticism of paranormal claims. It was intended as a standalone magazine feature. Still, in keeping with our now-established pipeline, we created all the art — computer-generated 3D dinosaurs, cartoons, diagrams, location photography from around the world — in book-ready full color.

It was well-received. Bestselling science author Dr. Donald Prothero even called it “a wonderfully clear, up-to-date, and well-illustrated account of how evolution works.” Which raised the obvious question: why not publish the evolution story as its own standalone book?

And so we found our entities multiplying like Occam’s own nightmare. We began to shop around an additional giant book project: Evolution.

The Perfect Home (Times Two)

Today happens to be the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s Origin of Species. As we shopped Evolution around, the 2009 Darwin anniversary year (a global celebration of arguably the most profound discovery in scientific history) was part of our pitch.

At large US publisher after publisher, the answer was the same: “The book is wonderful, we all love it here in the office. But we think it’s too controversial right now.” This will come as little surprise to Skepticblog readers, but it was crushingly frustrating — especially because the book was not confrontational in the slightest. It just clearly explained the central concept of biology.

Thankfully, this frustration didn’t last. Evolution did find the perfect home: Kids Can Press, Canada’s largest publisher of children’s books (a division of media giant Corus, and home of “Franklin the Turtle” and other popular franchises).


the first Junior Skeptic book, available only to students and museum-goers in Portugal

Even better (if also more complicated): at the same moment that Kids Can Press decided they wanted Evolution, so did a huge philanthropic organization in Portugal. The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation wanted their own full-color, Portuguese-language evolution book to distribute free to school kids, as a tie in to their own Darwin 2009 celebrations (including the largest Darwin-themed museum exhibit in the world, and a lecture series opened by punctuated equilibrium co-theorist Niles Eldredge).

Thanks to the gracious public spirit of everyone at both Kids Can Press and the Gulbenkian Foundation, an unusual three-way agreement was worked out. In February 2009, in honor of Darwin’s 200th birthday, the Skeptics Society proudly announced that distribution of the Portuguese adaptation was already underway — putting Darwin’s discovery into the hands of thousands of school kids for free!

Evolution — for release February, 2010

new Daniel Loxton art created for Evolution (Kids Can Press, 2010)

new art Daniel Loxton created for Evolution (Kids Can Press, 2010)

Meanwhile, Evolution was already in full production at Kids Can Press.

This English-language book — for hardcover release throughout North America in February 2010 — is a completely rewritten and expanded new book with a unique life of its own. It features many all-new sections, and tons of never-before-published art. Edited by Valerie Wyatt (author of over a dozen kids’ science books, and award-winning editor of over a hundred) and produced by Skeptic‘s own Pat Linse, Evolution is everything I hoped it would be. It’s accurate, it’s pretty — and it’s a major milestone on a road I’ve spent years of my life walking.

I’m tremendously grateful for Michael Shermer’s ongoing encouragement (and to those who support the Skeptics Society’s educational work with donations).

And I can’t wait — can’t wait! — to finally hold the first hardcover Junior Skeptic-based book in my hands.

(Stand by for details after Christmas, as we near the release of Evolution. And yes: stand by for news about further book projects later in 2010!)

Like Daniel Loxton’s work? Read more in the pages of Skeptic magazine. Subscribe today in print or digitally!

14 Responses to “The Origin of “Evolution””

  1. Anita says:

    Wonderful story. Congratulations!

  2. I am not only going to buy one for my sons, but also for their schools!

  3. Jillian says:

    Looking forward to reading it, and more of your blogs! Great work! :)

  4. Rebekah says:

    This is excellent news! I’ve been saving every issue of Skeptic mag I’ve received since before my kids were born, just so they can eventually read Junior Skeptic. The upcoming books will be valuable additions to their libraries! Love your work, Daniel!

  5. Deanna says:

    Way to go! This is sooooooo exciting. Yay for Canada and Portugal publishers for seeing the value in such a great book. this will definitely be on my book shelf when it comes out.

  6. Petrucio says:

    Is there any way I can purchase that Portuguese version?

    • I’m afraid not. It is available only within Portugal (either as part of the original free giveaway for school kids, or at the on-site gift store at the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian).

  7. Kudos. And I’m not talking about the candy bar.

  8. Matt says:

    I’ll get copies for my library (and one for my son) as soon as we can place orders. Way to go!

  9. Bill says:

    If someone named Ray Comfort offers to write the introduction, politely decline.

    Even if he says he’ll do it for free.


  10. Fantastic! I hope it can be shipped by the truckload ! We’ll need some copies here in Colorado Springs!!!

  11. squareone says:

    Congratulations Daniel!
    I’d like to donate a few copies to my local libraries.
    Keep up the good work.