Our 2019 Children’s Books of the Year stand out from an increasingly troubling crowd
Those who founded the Houston Museum of Natural Science (HMNS) in 1909 did so with the desire to “enhance in individuals the knowledge and delight in natural science and related subjects.” They succeeded.
Late in July my almost-4 granddaughter and I delighted in big HMNS dinosaur skeletons. If HMNS had a scary exhibit about evil Man making things hotter and killing oceans, as some museums do, I missed it. The only bad parts were the signs explaining some of the exhibits—and even they were delightful, in a “Just So” story way.
Late in July my almost-4 granddaughter and I delighted in big HMNS dinosaur skeletons.
Rudyard Kipling invented “Just So” stories: He called them that because his daughter would go to sleep only if he told them “just so,” with no change from the way he had previously told them. For example, one Just So story explains how the camel got his hump: A genie heard that the camel, asked to work, always declined with a “humpf,” so the genie foisted on him a hump with room for food that would enable him to work for three days straight.
Here’s one of the Just So stories on an HMNS placard: “When abundant food arrived on the land, opportunities opened to new species that evolved the organs needed to survive out of water. … One group of sea scorpions modified their ‘book gills’ to become ‘book lungs’ and became land scorpions. … Meanwhile, several clans of fish had evolved lungs.”
If my granddaughter were older and already reading, I would have had to point out how silly the active verbs are. (You remember from grammar, of course, that “the subject of an active voice sentence performs the action of the verb: ‘I threw the ball.’”) Sure, the sea scorpions “modified”—and I enjoyed the “meanwhile.” (Imagine the movie director: “Tight shot of the scorpions working on their gills … now cut to the fish clans.”)
Most Just So evolution stories are standard at science museums, but HMNS had a new one: “Why did tyrannosaurs evolve such weak arms and hands?” Maybe “Tyrannosaurs were ticklers! … Big, scary apex predators might need a way to express soft, family-friendly emotions. A tyrannosaur male might reach out to a female and delicately massage her shoulders.” (Movie director: “Cut to the delicate massage.”)
Also delightful, and more likely in pro-life Texas than Massachusetts or Oregon: “JURASSIC MOTHERHOOD. We nicknamed this skeleton ‘Jurassic Mom.’ She was carrying seven unborn babies when she died and became fossilized.” Unborn babies, not fetuses.
After we left the museum, I thought about how we can delight in being unique individuals created in God’s image. I’ve written before about the unlikelihood (by materialist probability) of human life: We’re on a Goldilocks planet where everything had to be just right for us to exist. But delight in this: It’s against great odds that you are here at all as you.
You are you because a particular sperm out of 200 million or so fertilized your mother’s egg. Had a different sperm with different DNA won the race, you’d be somewhat like you—the way brothers or sisters are somewhat like each other—but different.
Beyond that, you are you because your parents (leaving aside some hypermodern ways to make babies) were productively intimate. Maybe yours sat next to each other in school, and their eventual marriage was no surprise. Most of us, though, know of unlikely combinations in our heredity, especially since we’re all immigrants or descendants of them.
I’m writing this column only because of disaster, discrimination, desertion, dissatisfaction, and death. If a fire in 1902 hadn’t swept through Bobruisk, Russia, and impoverished the community; if the czar hadn’t drafted Jews into his army more than non-Jews, leading both of my grandfathers to desert from that army and escape to America; if one man didn’t like the looks of a woman he had paid to import for matrimony, and one of my grandfathers hadn’t swooped in for a cheap wife; if World War II hadn’t happened; etc.; etc.—I wouldn’t be here.
To some, strange sets of events like those mean you and I exist as we do through a one-in-a-trillion-trillion-trillion (to be precise) chance. But to those who believe in the Bible’s teaching, we are here as we are because God ordained it that way.