Using the familiar to explain the extraordinary.
Throughout the month of December, AiPT! is highlighting some of our favorite science-based books and activities for kids, this week with a special concentration on the “Science Comics” of First Second Books. Looking for that perfect holiday gift that educates while it entertains? Eureka, you have found it!
Kids are curious about the world they live in, especially the stuff that’s close at hand. So it’s only natural that First Second Books would eventually publish Dogs as a part of their “Science Comics” imprint. They’re a kid’s best friend!
Dogs makes the wise decision, as in previous Science Comic Volcanoes, to present its information as part of a narrative. Where Volcanoes made the facts kind of incidental to the more engrossing story, Dogs is looser with the framework, to greater effect.
Dogs follows a Cocker Jack named Rudy as he chases his tennis ball through time, happening upon each pivotal moment in dog evolution as he jumps. Okay, yes, that sounds a little out there, but Hirsch never dwells on the mechanism, as it’s his elongated panels and shots of Rudy transcending the gutters that communicate the concept. Yes, Hirsch heroically both writes and draws this volume.
Wait, what the heck is a Cocker Jack? A species of dog? Ah, but breeds are not individual species, but sub-species of Canis lupus. The domesticated dog is still technically a wolf. Dogs hits the ground running with this distinction, already making the reader question what they think they know about something so common.
In that way, Dogs functions just as well as an introduction to evolution in general, maybe even better, as it does puppies in particular. Hirsch makes a point to mention the interconnectivity of all things, and even though I won a prize in high school for how well I did in biology class, I now understand alleles better after having read this book. And he’s got Dmitri Belyaev’s silver foxes — evolution before our very eyes!
There are some missteps in Dogs, though. The multiple pages on Punnett squares drag on and might lose the attention of younger children, who could be more invested in Rudy losing his ball than anything else. Hirsch unfortunately repeats some classic myths, like the idea of “transitional forms” (as if there were somehow a “finished” animal to transition to) and that a single gene can control a phenotypic trait (while we continue to learn it’s more complicated than that).
But overall, Science Comics: Dogs does a great job of presenting an important topic in a soluble and engaging way. Why did wolves hang around people in the first place? When did those people finally figure out they could be useful? Why do all those dog breeds look so different? Through learning about how evolution works, children will learn why their companion is the way it is, and that’s the right approach to making science hit home.