The world’s wonders, and “Sophie’s choice”: a request for readers

December 11, 2012 • 3:47 am

First, for children who want to learn about wonderful beasts, a cartoon from bird and moon (h/t: Matthew Cobb). Click to enlarge:


The sea unicorn, by the way, is this.

Later today I’ll post about an animal at least as wondrous as these.

Now, Sophie Roell, who works for The Browser (she conducted my interview about evolution books), and is now living in China, writes with a request:

I am trying to introduce my kids  (aged 6, 5 and 4) to the concept of evolution, as I think it’s a nice thing to grow up understanding. They love animals of course, so quite a receptive audience. Though my daughter did cry at the idea of her forefathers being apes.  Given the holidays coming up, I thought it might be a good WEIT post to canvas people’s opinions of good books to teach kids evolution? After all, if you grow up understanding it, you’re unlikely to suddenly start believing in Adam and Eve later on….

So, as a favor to Sophie, I’d like to ask readers who have children, and who have given them books on evolution, to recommend the ones they like in the comments below.


34 thoughts on “The world’s wonders, and “Sophie’s choice”: a request for readers

      1. Damn you to all of the christian heavens!

        I know what it is and I’m a bit afraid (though wanting) to watch it. Not sure if I love to hate it, hate it, love it, or love to hate it.

  1. Our Family Tree: An Evolution Story by Lisa Westberg Peters and Lauren Stringer

    This is a nicely illustrated and easy to understand book on evolution (focused on humans but providing a decent general overview).
    My three-year-old likes it. I can’t say it’s one of his favourites but he goes through phases where he requests it. Lately, the mass extinctions seem to upset him and he doesn’t want me to read those pages.
    There’s no mention of natural selection in the main text so the changes it describes might as well be magic. I think it’s covered in the afterword, there’s certainly a bit more detail there for older children. But really, this is one for the very young.

  2. I didn’t give them books specifically on evolution but I gave them lots of books about nature. Ashton Scholastic has many wonderful picture books all about animals and plants and how the world works. I also gave them engineering books and all sorts of other things. I guess I just assumed that anything I found interesting they would too. It worked, I’ve raised three vocal atheists.

    1. OMG I forgot dinosaurs!! Lots of books about dinosaurs. And just in conversation I would talk about the descent of different animals, especially birds being descended from dinosaurs cause that it mega-cool.

      1. My kids probably think I’m a bit weird about dinosaurs. Every dinosaur book I’ve ever been asked to read to them is full of ridiculously bad art and errors of fact… because they weren’t published within the last three or four years at the time of reading.

        Do the facts change as fast in any field other than palaeontology? Perhaps not!

  3. Tangentially: For the Noah’s Ark thing, my 5yo daughter (who is dinosaur-mad) goes to a C of E school and knows the Noah story. But she also got given 100 Greek Myths by Lucy Coats, which is a bit advanced for her to read herself but is just the thing to read to her bedtime. And it just happens to include a retelling of the myth of Deucalion … which she spotted as really closely analogous to the Noah story. (It appears to similarly descend from the Gilgamesh flood story.)

  4. “What on Earth? Wallbook of Natural History”
    by Christopher Lloyd
    Publisher: Natural History Museum (2011);
    hardback; ISBN: 9780565092979
    Publisher’s description:
    “The What on Earth? Wallbook of Natural History tells the complete story of natural history from the formation of the Earth to the latest breakthroughs in evolutionary science. A3 in size and comprising a remarkable 2.3 metre long, beautifully illustrated timeline, it can either be read like a book or unfolded and stuck on a wall.”
    This ‘wallbook’ is suitable for all ages, including grownups. Nicely illustrated (by Andy Forshaw)- it gives a birds-eye view on the evolution of the biosphere and biodiversity.

  5. I presented my son with heaps of books about nature. Lots of them include chapters on fossils, and we’ve been fossil-hunting since he was six. Fossils/dinosaurs/extinct animals are a great way to understand evolution. And then We’ve been watching BBC-tv-series from The Blue Planet over The Frozen Plant, Life and so on to the David Attenborough tv-introduction to Charles Darwin and a few of Richard Dawkins’ tv-productions as well. And then ANYTHING with Charles Darwin in it! (My hero)My son is 11 now and he understands evolution (even corrected me once “No mom, we (humans and some animal, whales, I think) have the same ancestor, we’re not necessarily in the same family” True … sorry son), and he is very selfconfident in his knowledge about biology.

    1. I’ll second that. It’s not really a book about evolution, it’s about how to analyse myths (including creation myths) and decide what’s true. It also aims to foster wonder at reality. I think it does a pretty good job and I suspect this might be a good way to start teaching evolution.

      I lent my copy to my sister in law, who is a primary school teacher and uses it at work. She won’t give it back.

      1. True, it is not exclusively about evolution. However, it does get covered along with a range of other topics.

        I particularly think the chapter regarding who was first human drives it home well. The thought experiment to line up ancestry pictures spanning millions of generations was great.

        I also utilized those while teaching at a primary school science fair recently and it was great to watch the reactions when I informed people they were related to fish.

    2. It’s a good book, but will be most useful for the 10+ crowd. 4-6 year olds don’t usually have the attention span for the abstract parts of the book.

      1. So you read it *with* them. You adjust some of the material as appropriate and you’re prepared to spend a *lot* of time answering questions that might go a long way off topic.

        Isn’t that the whole point?

    3. Yes, Dawkins’ ‘The Magic of Reality’ is e wonderful book – one of the best non-fiction books for children – and adults – ever written.

  6. Jay Hosler’s “The Sandwalk Adventures” and “Evolution” come to mind. They are fun and informative accounts of evolution in a comics format, they made good presents for my nephews (although they were somewhat older, 9-13 in age).

    My toddler (age 2) loves the several natural history and prehistoric animals books we have in our house, particularly the encyclopedia-style ones published by DK. Full of excellent illustrations they make for an excellent introduction to the diversity of present and past life. Needless to say, he is a bit young to grasp the finer details of evolution of course, but he already puts his uncles and aunts to shame with his knowledge of dinosaurs and dinosaur names (Ankylosauridae and Hadrosauridae are his favourite). I have also given the big DK “Natural History Book” to friends’ kids as a present more than once, too.

    1. My son (age 8) read the “Sandwalk Adventures” this year and absolutely loved it. Perfect for that age group.

  7. No suggestions on evolution specifically (I’m waiting for the young reader’s illustrated version of WEIT!) but here are a few favorite natural history books that encourage thinking about biodiversity and evolution:

    1. CREATURES OF THE DESERT WORLD from the National Geographic Society, 1987. A lovely and ingenious pop-up book, this is the definitive children’s book on the Sonoran Desert. Text is accurate and informative but even non-readers can enjoy it.

    2. BENEATH THE SEA IN 3-D by Mark Blum, Chronicle Books, 1997. A book of color stereophotos with built-in stereo glasses! Excellent photos of beautiful sea creatures (fish, anemones, sea turtles, etc.), with brief descriptions and a glossary. A nice intro to stereophotography.

    3. THE GREAT CACTI by David Yetman, University of Arizona Press, 2007. Not just saguaros! Photos and descriptions of more species of giant cacti than you ever knew existed. My review is here:

    4. THE WHITE RIVER BADLANDS by Cleophas O’Harra. South Dakota School of Mines Bulletin 13, first published in 1920, reprinted in 1976. Despite its age, this is still the only publication available (popular or technical) that describes and illustrates all of the fossil mammals (and a few non-mammals) from this famous area. Illustrated in B&W with line drawings, engravings, and photos. Includes pictures of fossils, possible reconstructions of the living animals, and landscape photos. Nice intro to traditional scientific illustration in paleontology.

  8. Not a book, but the BBC “Origins of Us” series was fascinating for both me and my young son. Some of it is on the ragged edge of discovery and provisional, but they make fairly clear which parts are more speculative.

  9. My son is 8 and a budding scientist. These are the ones we’ve been through that we and he found most useful: They are all excellent:

    Our Family Tree, An Evolution Story (for the youngest) by Lisa Peters

    Evolution, How We and All Living Things Came to Be by Daniel Loxton Really excellent for grade school kids.

    We are still working our way through Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality and Dr. Coyne’s book too!

    And on another subject: The Kids’ Book of World Religions by Glossop and Mantha. Excellent overview of relision and what they believe. Great thing to expose the kids to. Out little guy just wondered why they believed those things and wyy everyone believed different weird things!

  10. Thank you so much everyone for these recommendations (and Jerry thank you for posting my request!). I am excited about ordering some of them to read/watch with the kids over the holidays.

    If anyone has more ideas please do post them — the more books/DVDs on the natural world the better…I come from a non-science background (though I did study Galileo/Newton and other 17th century scientists for a term as part of my history degree)so I’m also learning a lot myself…

    1. PS I just went to and ordered 8 of the recommendations (kids book of world religions, our family tree, evolution by daniel loxton, the DK Natural History Book, Dawkins’s Magic, Evolution by Jay Hosler, the Greek myth one, and the What on Earth Wallbook. I will report back.

  11. Charlie’s Playhouse ( has some fantastic resources of their own. We have the timeline poster, but I wish we had gone for the playmat. I’ve also got the ancient creature cards on our wish list. In addition to a section where they give links for kids and adults, they also have an annotated book list ( that includes a brief synopsis and gives a target age range. It’s where we got all of our favorites so I’ll just refer you to them.

    Another option is JL Dunbar’s series “The Universe Verse” ( He covers more than just evolution, though, as the first book is about the origins of the universe. They’re available either by ebook or hard copy and are truly wonderful.

    For a general overview, many kids love the Usborne encyclopedias or the DK Eyewitness guides. Oh, and not book related, but video – the BBC has a rather melodramatic “Walking With…” series that my kids loved. Also, if you can stand auto-tune, melodysheep(Symphony of Science) on YouTube has an evolution music video that my kids picked up a few bits and pieces from.

    I could go on, but I don’t want to hog the comments. I can probably rustle up some more if you’re interested. If you want to do some more searching online, there are some good ideas out there posted by secular homeschoolers. Yes, Virginia, they do exist and they teach actual science. 😉 If anything, some of their lesson plan ideas might be useful for school breaks or rainy days.

  12. i strongly recommend any of the books by steve jenkins. my four yr old loves them and they are simple but informative. unfortunately, his Story of Evolution is oop, but it can be found used if you are lucky. In most of his books, he discusses the natural, evolutionary history of the species in the book….ie he doesnt just tell you how long a giraffe’ s neck is….he tells you how it happened. his best two books are beetles and bones. I also recommend our family tree by westberg peters; laurence pringle’ s billions of years, amazing changes (foreword by jerry coyne); sneed collard’ s many books such as Teeth, Animals in Flight, etc. I cant wait to read the Magic of Reality to my girls but the darker illustrations have turned my oldest off so far…she finds them scary…will have to overcome that soon! I am not sure how up to date it is, but joanna cole’ s human body discusses human evolution in detail and it is ok for a four year old reading level…

Leave a Reply