In 1956 Disney published Our Friend the Atom as a compliment to a film and exhibition by the same name. The book uses a fable of a fishermen and a genie to explain the relation between people and atomic science, and the book strangely simultaneously offers much scarier visuals of the destructive power of atomic science than one would expect children of the fifties would have been exposed to but still manages to present a Utopian view of the future potential of the technology.
The analogy of the genie and fisherman forms the central framework for the book. The fisherman discovers a lamp which he then pries open.
With that a very menacing genie emerges from the lamp. Not the humorous and benevolent genie Disney gave my generation but a big old nasty genie. Instead of being grateful for his release this genie is quite disgruntled. Once freed he proclaims that “because thou has freed me, thou must die. For I am one of those condemned spirits who long ago disobeyed the word of king Solomon.” The genie then asks the fishermen to “chose how he will die”.
Through some deft trickery the fishermen convinces the genie to get back into his lamp, at which point the fishermen decides to throw the lamp back into the sea. The genie pleads with him to free him once again offering him three wishes.
On the next page the story is mapped on to the history of the atom. This page promises to explain “how the atomic vessel was discovered, how man learned of its many marvelous secrets, how the atomic Genie was liberated, and what we must do to make him our friend and servant.” I highly recommend right clicking on the image below to see the whole thing. The way Disney maps the story of the genie directly onto the history of atomic science is both bizarre and fascinating.
In strange form the dark imagery of the first encounter with the genie is ever present throughout the story. While the book is ultimately about human progress via technology these dark images keep reoccurring.
Ultimately children learn that humanity has somehow tricked the atom in just the same way that the fisherman tricked the genie. For this they are granted three wishes by the atom. The atomic genie will give us power, food and health, and ultimately that power, food and health will give the world peace.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Nature Study was the cutting edge approach in American science education. Educational scholars claimed students should “study nature, not books” and education took on a much more practical bent. Some scholars have noted that this approach to science education was much more gender inclusive, that nature study invited more women and girls into the sphere of science. The following images from Science Stories, a 1934 American science textbook, would seem to support the argument that nature study was more inviting to girls. In the past fifty years various science textbooks have come under scrutiny for including only pictures of boys and men in the book’s illustrations. Take a look at the following set of pictures from the book, these representative selections show boys and girls working together, something later books have largely failed to do. If this book is at all indicative of other texts and approaches from the time it would seem to be incontrovertible that Nature Study brought about a much more gender neutral approach for presenting science to children.
Science Stories follows a group of students and their teacher through the four seasons. Almost every page includes a picture, and almost every picture that includes a boy includes a girl as well. In the picture above we can see students in Autumn looking at leaves and twigs. Many of the stories focus on students activities outside. It is also worth mentioning that the science teacher is female.
The gender equity in the pictures follows the students back into the classroom. Many images like the one above show boys and girls workign together, in this case on some sort of diorama. Almost every single image shows boys and girls working together.
Beyond dioramas the gender equity extended to working with scientific equipment (see above) and children working on their homework.
Throughout the book boys and girls work together, collaborating and exploring their natural world. Aside from being a pleasant read, filled with beautiful illustrations, the Science Stories book is an interesting example of a gender inclusive curriculum. While we like to think that science and science education have become increasingly open to women these images, work like Kimberly Tolley’s Science Education of American Girls and explorations of the nature study movement suggests otherwise. It seems that the history of gender in science and science education is much more dynamic than we previously thought.
The stories we tell children are also very telling about our history. This blog will present brief examples of these telling moments. Points for consideration of history in children’s literature and facilitate discussion of the issues therein. Children’s books are a very visual medium, but sadly it is overly complicated to get pictures into print publications. Blogs work well for talking about other visual medium, like comics, so why not Children’s Literature.
Two years ago I took Marjee‘s advice to explore the history of children’s books about Marie Curie and Albert Einstein. In the process I came across a whole host of materials of historical interest that just didn’t fit into the project but nonetheless warranted discussion. Inspired by some of my colleagues at the Center for History and New Media‘s blogs I have been looking for a approach and topic for blogging and Marjee and I have been looking for projects to collaborate on. The blog will explore history in children’s books, from that perspective it will focus much more on ‘true stories’ (non-fiction) than on works of fiction. Our particular interest in the history of science will most likely translate into us spending more time on history of science topics. In particular you can expect to see a bit more of Curie and Einstein to begin with.
A bit about us. My name is Trevor Owens, I work as the Technology Evangelist for the Zotero project at the Center for History and New Media. Aside from that I am a graduate student studying American history at George Mason University. I graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a BA in History and the History of Science. My undergraduate thesis explored how children’s books about Albert Einstein and Marie Curie diverged from more authoritative biographies. My other work has focused on the history of school science fairs, children’s books about evolution, and creation/evolution discourse in online communities.
Marjee, works as a Associate Director for PBS TeacherLine, developing, directing, and facilitating professional development for teachers across the United States. Marjee taught high school physics and chemistry, and has studied the history of science education and educational technology. She has previously explored Sputnik’s impact on American science education, online creation science communities, and her work on scientific reasoning in video games has been cited in Science.
Our first experiences with history are crucial, while many of those experiences are impossible to capture children’s books provide a record of many of our first impressions of history. On some level these books represent our first past. Children’s books that make historical assertions and this blog is a attempt to start unraveling those assertions. To start taking a serious look at historical children’s literature. The study of Children’s Literature is in many ways in its infancy, and the study of its history even more so. The short pieces in this blog are intended as a way to help develop a dialog about these books.
Oh, and our views are our own, and in no way reflect the views of our respective organizations etc.
(image from Russell Ray Baker. So That’s Man!. Chicago: Reilly & Lee, 1949.)