Finding Magic & Wonder

The blog’s been quiet this week, I know.  I’ve been reading as usual, and I’ve been thinking about what I’ve read recently.  The Magic of Reality, in particular (which I blogged about here).  My daughter is too young yet for the book (aimed at teens and non-science-oriented adults), but she isn’t too young to start encouraging a sense of wonder at science and nature.

I’ve been immersed in science picture books for a work project recently, and wonder seems to be a theme this season.  At least that’s what I see in books like A Leaf Can Be… and Step Gently Out.  Both of these books use art and poetry to introduce the subject while creating a sense of awe, and they both offer more details in the back matter.

These are the sorts of books that I love to share with my daughter because they don’t really end when you finish reading the book.  The best part is what happens after you read them.  Maybe they’ll show up in a Picture Book Preschool post some time soon because they really do seem made for inspiring young science projects or at least a closer look.  It is so exciting to see my preschooler notice nature in a new way or make connections she hadn’t before because of what we’ve read.

How do you encourage a sense of wonder in your children?


Disclosure: links are affiliate links.  A portion of purchases made via these links earns a commission for this blog.  Thanks for your support! :)

For more about science for kids, see my Secular Thursday page.

Searching for Magic with Richard Dawkins

“I want to show you that the real world, as understood scientifically, has magic of its own–the kind I call poetic magic: an inspiring beauty which is all the more magical because it is real and because we can understand how it works . . . The magic of reality is–quite simply–wonderful.  Wonderful and real.  Wonderful because real.”  — Richard Dawkins in The Magic of Reality

When I heard that Richard Dawkins was writing a book for young people, I was semi-interested.  When I heard that the book was going to be illustrated by Dave McKean, I was solidly interested. When I read the above quote, I was sold.  I am so glad that someone else, with a bigger mouth than mine, is finally talking about the idea of “poetic magic.”  This is the best kind of magic because it never goes away.  The more we delve into it, the cooler it gets.  The more magical–awe inspiring, beautiful–it is.  This is the world in which we live.

This kind of magic is all around us, and people have been trying to understand it for a long time.  The Magic of Reality is a fascinating mix of history/culture, science, and art that brings science alive in a way that can’t help but draw in readers–even a “non-science person” such as myself–as it answers questions with the many ways humans have tried to understand the natural world with myth and science.   I must admit that I often found the cultural bits more interesting than the science bits, but the real draw throughout the book were the illustrations, which were almost a second narrative that intertwined with the text.  I imagined the illustrations as one reader’s imagination/thought process as he or she sorted through the stories and facts that filled the book.  Some pages are like dreamscapes while others are more like diagrams.  It really opens the book up to people, like myself, who aren’t used to thinking scientifically or who may connect with concepts more visually.  It really is quite striking.

That’s the good news.  The bad news is that not everyone likes Richard Dawkins’ way of talking about religion.  Even non-religious people don’t necessarily appreciate that this book includes the Judeo-Christian stories right next to the myths of others cultures with no differentiation between them.  I even blogged about my concern before I’d read the book.  Now that I have read The Magic of Reality, I’m less concerned.  It didn’t seem to cross any lines I hadn’t seen crossed in books aimed at young people before when addressing issue related to religion, faith, or critical thinking, in particular the Really, Really Big Questions series I blogged about recently.

These are just a few of the issues I discussed during a taping of an upcoming episode of Atheists Talk, which is a public access television show produced by the MN Atheists.  You might remember me blogging about it before.  Keep an eye for your local stations or for the podcast when it becomes available if you are interested in the whole conversation.

Meanwhile, I’ll be putting The Magic of Reality on the shelf for a while until Ladybug is old enough to appreciate it.  Can’t wait. :)

For more about science for kids, see my Secular Thursday page.

Disclosure: Amazon links are affiliate links.

11 Experiments That Failed

Thanks to the PBS Kids show Dinosaur Train, my four-year-old knows that a hypothesis is “an idea you can test.”  Or at least she can parrot that sentence when asked.  I wanted to get beyond a catchphrase definition, and I wanted to do it without going over her head.

Enter: 11 Experiments That Failed by Jenny Offill. Make no mistake–this picture book is not going to be taken as a textbook about the scientific method.  It’s fun and silly, but it’s actually a great introduction to the hypothesis as the girl from 17 Things I’m Not Allowed to Do Anymore has all sorts of ideas–most of which kids are going to recognize as bad ideas–and tests them out with comical results.

Here’s hoping it’s just the beginning of our science adventures! :)


For more about science for kids, see my Secular Thursday page.


Disclosure: Amazon links are affiliate links.

The Fictional Religions of Teen Fiction

Move over Chutengodianism.  It’s time to make room in the world of made-up religions of teen fiction for Bluedaism.

Pete Hautman started the trend (are two books a trend? We’ll say yes.) with Godless in 2004, which won the National Book Award for Young People.  His satirical story was filled with critiques on religion with some over-the-top moments that kept the pages turning.  It’s a pretty fun read for those who find this sort of thing amsuing.  Not as fun for those who don’t.

In Sparks by S.J. Adams, Bluedaism doesn’t seem to be about critiquing religion so much as understanding what religion does for people.  For Debbie, religion has always been a way of staying close to her best friend.  She has been pretending to be a believer for years just top stay close to Lisa.  In an even more complicated twist, Debbie is secretly in love with Lisa.  Lisa, of course, believes homosexuality is a sin.  What sounds melodramatic (well, okay… it probably is a little melodramatic, but stick with me) is actually pretty funny no matter what you believe.

Where does Bluedaism come in? Debbie finds herself on a Holy Quest with a couple of new friends she met in detention who charge her $5 for membership to the Church of Blue (They are not a cult. They swear.) Bluedaism might be a wacky made-up religion. but Emma and Tom say it’s helped them give up bad habits and live better lives.  Eventually, we learn that things aren’t quite what they seem with Emma and Tom–not in a teen-fiction-is-dark-and-depressing sort of way. More like why-isn’t-this-a-teen-rom-com-flick-yet?  Well, I suppose it hasn’t been out for long.  There’s time yet. Incidentally, that is exactly what Debbie learns about religion in the book.  No need to have everything figured out right now.  Time will tell.

If Chutengodianism is the Flying Spaghetti Monster of teen fiction, where does Bluedaism fit in?  I’m not sure, but it’s good to have options. :)


More about science and religion on my Secular Thursday page.

Disclosure: links are affiliate links.  Purchases made from the links support this blog!

Big Questions for Little Skeptics

I’d seen Kingfisher’s Really, Really Big Questions books around, but I hadn’t paid much attention to them until I saw that the newest one in the series, which came out in October 2011, took on God.  More specifically, Really, Really Big Questions about God, Faith, and Religion takes a skeptical look at God for kids (grades 3-6 or so).

The question and answer format doesn’t provide too many answers.  Much like, DK’s What do You Believe? (which I talked about in this post) the point seems to be to encourage more questions and critical thinking, which I love.  The book is definitely oriented to scientific answers over supernatural (as are the other two in the series about philosophy and space), but it also cautions readers to be respectful (“Respect involves accepting that no one knows for sure what the truth about God and religion is.” italics theirs) of people and their beliefs even when disagreeing (“The best criticism is not rude, but polite and helpful–the way your teacher might comment on your homework or a sports coach might assess his or her players.”).

I highly recommend this series to any family looking to open a skeptical discussion about religion.

Want to read more about skepticism? See my Secular Thursday page for all my posts in the Books for Secular Families series.

Disclosure: Amazon links are affiliate links.

Magic, Miracles, and Skepticism

I’ll believe it when I see it.

It seems like the pinnacle of skepticism to set such a requirement, but what happens when we think we see something that we didn’t really see?  There are books about the neurology behind our tendency to believe what we see, but it’s rare to come across the idea in books accessible to young people.

I was delighted to discover a picture book that addressed it on a level I could share with my preschool-age daughter.  In Anton Can Do Magic by Ole Konnecke, we watch as Anton is inspired by a poster of “The Great Sorcar.”  He dons a hat–that is too big–and sets out to do some magic.  When Anton tries to make something disappear, his too-large hat slips over his eyes at just the right moment so that it seems his magic worked.  Readers know the truth, however, which lends kid-appeal to the story.  My four-year-old was able to discern what happened easily, and I think I’ll revisit the book in a couple of years to have a more substantive conversation about how we might need to dig deeper beyond simply what we see.  Read more about Anton Can Do Magic in this review at Kirkus or see some of the illusrations at 7 imp.

The Probability of Miracles by Wendy Wunder delves into belief vs. skepticism for teens (and adults who read teen fiction). In this story Cam–committed skeptic–is terminally ill.  When her doctor tells her there is nothing left he can do for her, Cam’s mother starts looking for a miracle to save her daughter.  Once they exhaust the possibilities offered by non-traditional medicine, they decide to take even more drastic measures.  Cam reluctantly agrees to relocate to a small town in Maine where mysterious things have been said to happen.  She is too busy crossing items off her version of a bucket list to spend much time analyzing the strange things that happen in Promise, Maine.  Readers can interpret everything that happens with the eyes of a believer or those of a skeptic, and I imagine both sides will ardently argue their view before giving in–hopefully realizing that it is the inability to convince each other of what we don’t want to see that is at the heart of the novel.  How ever you read the book, have tissues handy.

I have yet to read The Believing Brain, but it’s definitely been bumped up on my to-read list. :)

See more posts about science, religion, and secular family life on my Secular Thursday page.

Disclosure: Amazon Links are affiliate links.

Happy Anni-birth-mas!

In my family, December is about more than just Christmas.  The succession of special days in December has been dubbed “anni-birth-mas,” and our traditions have come to be about all of us–Ladybug’s birthday, our wedding anniversary, then Christmas.  It’s a jumble, at least for now.  We try to give each day its due attention, but we don’t draw too many lines between the celebrations.

As I wrote last year, we have our own take on holiday traditions:

“To be honest, I still trip over the words to Christmas carols I’ve heard a million times but only recently started to sing.  I didn’t manage to get Christmas cards out before the holiday (or the new year), and I’m quite sure no one had a Christmas tree like ours.  Our Christmas was ‘us,’ and I loved it.”

Our DIY tree is far from most people’s idea of traditional, but it makes me smile every time I see it.  It represents our influences from Christianity and Buddhism, as well as our anti-consumerist tendencies.  The most important thing to me is that it be fun.  It’s also kind of funny, but that is just a bonus.

If you can’t tell from the photo, the Buddha sits in the middle of our “tree” this year–flashing the peace sign.  It is part shrine, part art project, part holiday celebration.  Completely ours.

Not that I don’t want Ladybug to know what a more traditional holiday looks like.  That’s what books are for.  We read Celebrate Christmas for context and The Perfect Christmas to emphasize that everyone celebrates differently.  Then we read A Christmas Tree for Pyn to talk about family and simplicity.  (FWIW, this is one of my favorite picture books this year.  Read the review at Waking Brain Cells for more details.)

This is what works for us.  I hope your family has found what works for you.  Merry holidays!

See more posts about science, religion, and secular family life on my Secular Thursday page.

Disclosure: Amazon Links are affiliate links.

Our Secular Bedtime

“May I have a blessing?” Ladybug asked at bedtime one night.

I have to admit, I was thrown.  How would she even know the word “blessing”?  A few questions revealed a bedtime blessing she had heard at a recent sleepover, and while I wasn’t opposed to a general blessing-type-thing, the one Ladybug recited about angels protecting us as we sleep wasn’t going to fly at our house.

So began my somewhat reluctant search for a bedtime blessing (or whatever) that fit our family.  It’s a difficult task for a non-religious family for whom the word “blessing” is a little too far from our comfort zone.  I felt a bit less reluctant about the idea of a blessing after reading Raising Happiness (which I mentioned in this post about gratitude) since it included a recommendation to say a mealtime prayer (or prayer-like thing, the author notes for non-religious families) as a way of modeling shared optimism and gratitude.

My requirements were as follows:

  • Express empowerment or optimism
  • No reference to anything supernatural

Sounds pretty simple, right?  That’s what I thought, but nothing I found in books of children’s prayers and blessings were secular enough for us–even the Unitarian prayers still felt like they were invoking something in a way that wouldn’t feel right for us.

Then one night before bedtime, we found what we were looking for as we finished our bedtime story for the night.  The story had a little bear looking to put off bedtime with request for one more story, one more prayer, one more anything that would mean not sleeping for a few more minutes.  It’s a familiar routine at our house, but it was the end of the story stood out that night.

The final words to Sleepyhead by Karma Wilson are now our bedtime “blessing”:

“Sleepyhead, Sleepyhead

Sleep tight, sleep tight.

Tomorrow’s play is just ahead.

I love you so. Now rest your head.”

That felt right.

I’ve since discovered this post about secular bedtime prayers from Kelly Naturally that might have something that feels right for you.

See more posts about science, religion, and secular family life on my Secular Thursday page.

Disclosure: Amazon Links are affiliate links.

Exploring a Possible Future

I actually left work a bit early to make sure I  could to the library before it closed when I got the notice that When She Woke was waiting for me on the hold shelf.  I’d been waiting for this book for what felt like forever.  It had been described as The Scarlet Letter meets The Handmaid’s Tale, and I was very interested in what that story had to say.

The story takes us into a near future in which the line between religion and politics has been lost.  It is a world where criminals are “chromed” and released to survive with their crime obvious to anyone who looks their way.  Hannah was once part of a religious family and active in her church.  Now she has been convicted of the murder of her unborn child.  She is a Red.

I could hardly put the book down from the very first page.  Some of the story is kind of expected. As the Washington Post review puts it, Hannah “has many adventures, of course, and learns to be a strong, independent person, instead of the compliant little church girl she was raised to be. ”  But there is much to discuss (religion, politics, women’s rights) and compare (Hawthorne, Atwood, etc.) that will draw readers in despite some weaknesses.  I was reminded, as I read, of a book that was set in a similar future from a different perspective.  The Misconceiver by Lucy Feriss looks at what happens after Roe v. Wade is overturned in 2011 (yikes!) to a woman who performs abortions despite the dangerous nature of her work.  One of the reasons these books are so suspenseful is that they don’t feel very far from the truth.  No, we are not to the point of marking criminals’ misdeeds on their skin, but the Personhood Movement would have us move in the direction of these fictional futures.

In the midst of reading When She Woke, I happened to listen to a radio documentary on the role of religion in government: The Politics of Faith.  It was a fascinating look at the struggle to draw the line between religion and government in various countries around the world, including parts of the world where they are transitioning to democracy.  It is well worth listening to for those interested in exploring this complex issue.

For those of you who want to stick to fiction, here are some more dystopian novels you might enjoy.

See more posts about science, religion, and secular family life on my Secular Thursday page.

Disclosure: Amazon Links are affiliate links.

The Poetry of Science (Books for Secular Families)

The Tree That Time Build: A Celebration of Nature, Science, and Imagination is one of my favorite poetry collections for young people.  From the book:

“Both poets and scientists wonder at and about the world.  Out of that wonder, scientists devise experiments to see whether they can verify what they think might be true, while poets craft language to examine and communicate their insights.”

I must admit that I am more of a poet than a scientist, so the poems in this collection are the perfect way for me to connect with science in a way that reinforces the idea that wonder doesn’t go away with explanation.  The poems are organized thematically to cover our origins, dinosaurs, plants life, animals, insects, and genetics.  The accompanying CD  includes many of the poems being read by the poets.  The book & CD would make a great gift for a family with an interest in nature.  Perhaps pair it with a tree planted in their name or other gift from the Arbor Day Foundation store.

This book will be a family treasure and a classroom favorite.

See more posts about science, religion, and secular family life on my Secular Thursday page.

Disclosure: Amazon Links are affiliate links.