Book Review: Our Family Tree

The book cover for Our Family Tree.Young children are naturally interested in the world – how things work, where things come from, and so forth. I can’t imagine such discussions not raising the need to explain evolution in some fashion. Our daughter understood a basic sense of evolution in her fourth year.

Oh, but first, a disclaimer…. If you feel evolution contradicts your religious beliefs, I can’t help you there. I do recommend watching a 7-part interview with George Coyne, a Jesuit priest and former head of the Vatican Observatory research group (e.g., he’s a scientist). The interview is a detailed look at Coyne’s acceptance of both his faith in God and everything that science has come to explain about the natural world. Here’s a pertinent link to the middle of the interview. [Full interview: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7]

Anyhow… A while ago my wife and I looked around for children’s books about evolution and settled on Our Family Tree: An Evolution Story by Lisa Westberg Peters and illustrated by Lauren Stringer.

It’s a beautiful picture book which begins with a family’s trip to the beach and children drawing creatures in the sand. It ends with a family tree drawn sprawling across the beach. In the intervening pages you are treated to rich illustrations and simple text that follows life on earth from cells in the ocean to what we recognize today as humans.

For example, one page depicts a small rat-like insect-eating mammal. The adjoining page has the mammal shown as drawn in the sand with three suckling babies. The text reads:

“On the outside, we were small and furry. We hid or slept during the day, and we scurried about at night. On the inside, we made milk for our babies, the way we do now.”

Our Family Tree is rated for ages 4 through 10, and there are a few points you may stumble over for youngsters in the first few pages. Namely, cells, a passing reference to genetic code and plate tectonics (as implied by land rising from the oceans).

That last one was easy for me because we live in California. The land we live on (a plate) is floating on super hot red liquid. When one plate hits another, the ground shakes. It can also cause plates to move upward, which is how we get mountains. (This matters insofar as life couldn’t venture out of the oceans without the presence of dry land.)

Well, you get the picture. Super simplified explanations. The one issue I haven’t accomplished is conveying the enormity of time. So far, to my daughter millions of years are just a lot more than 100.

The last pages of the book contain paragraph descriptions of the preceding pages, explaining key points in more detail. There is also a species timeline for older kids.

One theme in the book is of the slow, gradual changes in living things. It begs the observation that even now we are evolving. For example, the story points out our transition from walking on all fours to standing upright, and also our ever-increasing brain size. I postulated with my daughter about other changes we might be seeing today, such as hair loss. And it’s always fun to think about what humans may look like long into the future.

The book’s other theme is the wonderful notion that all life on Earth is connected by a common origin and that the story of evolution can indeed be told with a family tree.


2 Responses to “Book Review: Our Family Tree”

  1. MIdge says:

    Thank you for this review! My 5 y.o. recently asked about how the “first man and woman ever” got on earth. We are not religious, so have had no exposure to Adam and Eve. I told her abbreviated versions of both creationism and evolution stories and said people have different ideas. This book looks like a nice one to continue the conversation.


    May 8th, 2009 at 6:06 am

  2. KGS says:

    Thanks for this review! My 3-year-old is really into natural history museums, and this looks like it will add a lot to her understanding of what she sees.

    The sense of time issue is a tough one– I’ve taught courses in archaeology, and plenty of college students can’t really grasp the idea of millions of years. For little kids who’ve only recently figured out the difference between “yesterday” and “last week,” it’s even more of a challenge!

    May 8th, 2009 at 12:59 pm