The world is a place of wonder and magic for children who are, by nature, curious little creatures. Their worldly inexperience, however, leaves them vulnerable, gullible and open to exploitation, which can cause problems with rationalizing, critical thinking and reasoning later on in life.
We’re living in a renewed age of misinformation, conspiracy and pseudoscience, which means that introducing young children to healthy skepticism is a must. But how? Pro-science children’s book series Annabelle and Aiden by J.R. Becker is helping to do just that, and without ruining the so-called “magic of childhood.”
In his own words: “Big questions for little minds”
Currently there are five beautifully illustrated books in the series. They’re written in the form of rhyme, from the perspective of two children — a young, thoughtful girl named Annabelle who seeks facts and scientific answers to her very large questions, and her little brother Aiden, who tends to lean toward answers that are simple or supernatural. Together, they go on fantastical adventures and encounter interesting characters while discovering the beauty of the reality around us.
I’ve read a lot of children’s science-based books and they often come off dry, like a cold, sterile lab. Becker’s Annabelle and Aiden has a way of softly embracing these huge concepts that’s genuine and loving. They’re gentle, yet full of facts and whimsical art. Honestly, they’re probably the most positive science-based children’s book I’ve ever read.
My 10-year-old son says, and I quote, “Mom … my mind was completely blown by these books. They made me think about things in ways that … I know we have talked about it, Mom, but these books made me think about it differently. I REALLY loved them, even though my head kind of hurts in a good way, now.” Yes, thank you, he’s a true artist of words.
I recently caught up with Becker to find out more about Annabelle and Aiden, but if you’d like to catch up with him and see the books for yourself, he’ll be set up at New York City’s most fun SciComm conference, NECSS on Saturday, July 13th and Sunday, the 14th. Get your tickets now so you can make sure to visit him.
AiPT!: I’m really excited about Annabelle and Aiden, but before we get to that, I’d like to ask you a little more about you. Before you were a children’s author you were a lawyer. That’s a huge change. What made you go into writing?
Becker: Sure, I’ve always loved writing! I love writing, thinking and analyzing the written language. I’ve always been good at writing. You know, one of the reasons I became a lawyer is because I enjoy writing and thinking and analyzing … and arguing.
To really explain why I write science and philosophy — it’s something I’ve always been interested in. I grew up in a very religious, Jewish home, and I always doubted what I was taught. When I was about 25 years old, I heard a speech by a rabbi on rational proof of Judaism and it really lit a fire under me to try to figure out what this was all about, “What’s true and what’s not true?” I really wanted to just get to the bottom of it.
I spent the next, I would say, four years or so, obsessing about the question of whether or not God exists and whether or not Judaism is true. And I spent countless hours watching debates on YouTube and reading all of the books written by atheists, rabbis, priests and imams that I saw debating on YouTube.
That kind of left an emptiness in me because I thought, “Now that I shed those beliefs, how does it all work? How does the world work? Why do I have two eyes instead of one? Why do I have five fingers on each hand? How do genes work? How does it all work?” With my decrease in my religious beliefs, I gained an intense increase in my scientific curiosity, which I find in a lot of people, for obvious reasons.
I immersed myself in science and learned the basics of science and evolution, which I never really understood before. I don’t think most people on the street do today, in America. I think the majority of people don’t have a basic understanding of what it is, and so I wanted to tell the world about it.
The stories are not being told; there’s a huge gap in children’s literature for these kinds of thoughts and stories. I thought, “This is just as exciting as fiction! Kids are learning fairy tales and fiction, why can’t we at least also inspire them with the amazing — as Richard Dawkins would call it, “magic of reality.” It’s just as exciting. When kids know about it, it could really help them change the world. It allows thinking, being able to understand reality. It shows us how we relate to the world around us.
AiPT!: Wow, that was a pretty big change for you! So, you designed the Annabelle and Aiden series to leave out myths, fairy tales, and the religious aspect. You want it to really just focus on the science. Is that based on what you wanted for your own children?
Becker: That’s what I want for them and every child in the world. I also think it’s important that, and I just want to stress this, that regardless of my own beliefs or lack thereof, I wanted to do something for my kids that wasn’t anti-anything, but is pro something. My books are pro-science. I go to great lengths to make sure they’re not anti anything. I mean, okay they are anti-superstition, but I try to really focus on the pro-science part of it and not cancel out anyone’s beliefs.
AiPT!: So, hang on, are the characters of Annabelle and Aiden named after your own children?
Becker: Yes. Right now, they just turned 7 and 5, respectively. They’re two years apart.
AiPT!: Awesome! How have your children responded to your books?
Becker: It’s funny, I could say tens of thousands of other children love my book, but my daughter doesn’t like them. She says she wants more of a story and less science. She does love learning about evolution! She’s excited about it, but she’s just like, “Yeah I don’t want to read one of these. I’d rather read something else.”
My son just kind of follows whatever she does, so … sadly that’s the case. But, I know that tens of thousands of other children have loved them, and I think that when my children are older, they’ll look back and relate. They’ll look at them and hopefully read them to their children.
AiPT!: I’m sure they will as they get a little older. What ages would you recommend for your books? I saw a suggestion of 3 to 8 somewhere.
Becker: Yeah. Even older maybe. Maybe 5 to 10, or even to 12.
AiPT!: Why do you think it’s important to start talking about science and our world at a younger age, rather than just relying on fictional stories like fairy tales, myths or folklore?
Becker: I think there is inherent value in truth, and just the fact that it’s true. It’s kind of … to me it’s so self-evident and obvious that it’s hard for me to put into words why it matters that we don’t lie to children, and why it matters that children and adults understand the reality around us. I could talk about GMOs, vaccines and climate change, the pro-life/pro-choice debate. All of these debates are evidence-based. The more we can inspire children and get them on the right track to be curious about reality? I think it’s important for several reasons.
The first is just being in awe of the natural world. It’s an incredible and magical, an inspiring thing. The second reason is so that when these children grow up and begin making decisions, influencing the world through the products that they buy, it will affect how they react towards things, like buying medicine or choosing alternative medicine. It will help them when people try to come and ask for their money for pseudoscience purposes. It will help them just be a citizen in the world. And when they vote with their money in the supermarket or at the voting booth, they’ll be able to make important and informed decisions. Another reason would be to inspire the inventors and scientists who can change the world.
The fourth reason I would give, I’m just brainstorming here, but I think morality is an important aspect of this conversation. Having evidence-based morality as opposed to a doctrine-based morality is a very important thing. When someone is grounded in science, they’re more inclined to act on an evidence-based reality and not do something we think is right or wrong because some other authority, whether natural or supernatural, tells them.
AiPT!: Those are all some very good reasons. Okay, let’s talk about the books.
Becker: When I made the first book, I thought I might make it into a series one day, depending on how it went. Making a book on evolution was really at the forefront of my mind. Some people love the climate, some people love the dinosaurs and paleontology, or maybe astrophysics. For me, personally, nothing speaks to me like evolution does. I knew I needed to make a book about it. It’s the most inspiring thing that I could comprehend.
So, the first book, Story of Life, is on evolution. It did pretty well, so I thought I’d make the series. I always had the idea that myths would be perfect for children’s books — things like storks delivering babies and flat Earth, aliens and the Loch Ness monster. The second book is on critical thinking and skepticism and it’s about all of those myths. It’s called Oh, The Things We Believed!
I almost didn’t want to do a book about the Big Bang and how “we are all stardust,” because I felt like it was overdone, and we were talking about it all the time. BUT people kept asking me to do it, so for the third book, I did. It’s called, Worlds Within Us, and it did extremely well. I think the first book raised $4,400 on Kickstarter and every book thereafter raised $7,000 more than the one before it. By the third book we were raising maybe $17,000 on Kickstarter.
I mean, it was very encouraging, and people liked it a lot, but I didn’t know what to do after the third book. A lot of mothers and parents told me that I needed to do a book on death. I thought about it and then Stephen Fry and Neil deGrasse Tyson, two people that have spoken about death from the humanist standpoint, really inspired me. I wrote What Happens When We Die. I took a big risk doing that. I didn’t even want to put the word “die” in the title. I thought it was a negative word, but parents and childhood specialists told me that I need to, and not to beat around the bush, to tackle it head-on. I did. And I’m so glad I did. I think it’s my most popular book. It’s definitely the most important book I’ve ever written. Someone read it at a funeral. It was just a powerful thing.
Lastly, the fifth book. I thought I just wanted to come back to evolution, but based only on human evolution this time. So, Sapiens is our human evolution story.
AiPT!: Those are some huge concepts. How do you process them and figure out how to address it to children?
Becker: People have told me, “It’s not a story, it’s just a bunch of facts,” and I’m like well it IS a story, it’s a story through time. There was the first living thing, then it had babies, made copies of itself. Some of them were different, some got weeded out by the environment. I mean, I try to tell it as a story.
A lot of times when I think of a topic like a death or human evolution, I spend a long time researching and try to pick out the most fascinating and inspiring details about it, and I try to emphasize those. Like in Worlds Within Us, we’re all made of stardust. I read that we have the power of hydrogen bombs in our body through our energy. We probably have pieces of Shakespeare in our body because his molecules have dispersed through the universe, and there’s so many of them that each one of us probably has part of a molecule from him, or other famous people. I try to find whimsical ways to relate it to children, and interesting facts so people can read it and think, “Wow, I had no idea this was true. This is amazing.” I try to really relate it to us on a concrete level.
AiPT!: Can you tell me about the illustrations? They are absolutely stunning.
Becker: Yes! So, she goes by the name Max Rambaldi. I email her a long and detailed synopsis of what I would like her to do for each page. Then she sends me her work, and then I ask if she could make that brighter, move this to the right, make him smiling there, and … she probably wants to kill me for that. But we just go back and forth until it’s ready. She lives in Italy, I found her on the internet, and one thing that will shock you — it shocks everyone I tell — is that we have never actually spoken or met. We handle everything over email and have for years. It’s amazing that the internet could bring people together like this.
AiPT!: Are there any plans for future Annabelle and Aiden? Will you be taking on any conventions or other events?
Becker: So, I came out with the last five titles all within the past three and a half years. I have a little less time now since I started a new day job and things are just busy. For now, I’m just going to focus on selling the five books that I have, but I definitely do have plans for more, and have a ton ideas. I probably won’t come out with a new title for another year or two, but after that I hope for come out with four new titles or so. I’d like to have 8 to 10 titles total. Maybe some fun stuff will aliens or microbes ….
I try to go to a few events a year. I’ve been to several Ethical Culture Society events. I don’t know if you’ve heard of them, but they’re kind of a humanist group. There’s about 10 congregations of them along the East Coast, and I’ve spoken at five of them. They’ve really enjoyed it; I’ve enjoyed it. I also spoke at the American Humanist Association Conference last summer. That was a really wonderful experience and sort of a breakthrough for me. And I’m really looking forward to going to NECSS coming up in New York in July.
Becker will be selling copies of his books at NECSS on July 13 and 14 (the same conference hosting AiPT! Comics presents: The Science and Philsophy of X-Men Biology!). Register today, before prices go up on June 24!