Book Review

Brynja Adam-Radmanic

Jonathan Tweet & Karen Lewis (Illustrator):
Grandmother Fish. A child’s first book of evolution.

Hardcover: 32 pages
Publisher: Jonathan Tweet Studios; 1st edition (2015)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0986288403
ISBN-13: 978-0986288401
Hardcover, $20 (plus shipping fees to Europe: $30).
More at

Neal Layton:
The Story of Everything. A pop-up book with pops, flaps and tabs.

Hardcover: 30 pages
Publisher: Hodder Children's Books (October 19, 2006)
3 to 6 years
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0340881712
ISBN-13: 978-0340881712
€14 (Hardcover)

Apes Don’t Celebrate Birthdays!
Books on evolution for pre-schoolers

It may be that “The first book on evolution for pre-schoolers”, reviewed here, isn’t the very first at all. Your Lab Times reviewer was nevertheless full of praise.

In recent years, I have written several reviews of children’s books about evolution for my German blog (http://wissens­ All of the books were for school children aged eight and above and I tried to find books for smaller children without success. This was surprising, given that, in my experience, even four-year-olds show a strong interest in dinosaurs and fossils, which is a great start for first steps to scientific literacy in evolution.

I found out that pre-schoolers can grasp the basics of evolutionary biology when the kindergarten teachers of my child invited me to talk at a science project last year. Knowing that I am a biologist, I was asked to answer the kids’ questions, including “What were the first animals on Earth?” and “When did the first humans live?” The kids and I enjoyed a lively chat about how we scientists know about things that happened long ago and why we think the ancestors of all the animals and plants changed over time. They knew a lot already, not only about dinosaurs, but on similarities and differences between humans and their nearest relatives, too. I was amazed by statements like “Apes don’t celebrate their birthdays”.

After this experience, I knew for sure that there is no good reason for the lack of books on evolution for young children.

Crowd-funded project

So, I was excited when I discovered the crowd-funded book project Grandmother Fish, by Jonathan Tweet, a US designer of tabletop, role-playing games, who applied his storytelling talents to create a book that he, as an atheist and father, had found was missing. His idea and text came to life with the help of drawings by Karen Lewis, an experienced illustrator of science for children.

To make the book accessible for the very young, it is conceptualised as being read interactively, coaxing the children to wiggle and chomp like grandmother fish, crawl and breathe like grandmother reptile, squeak and cuddle like grandmother mammal, grab and hoot like grandmother ape, and walk and talk like grandmother human.

With its engaging texts and charming drawings of animals and their evolutionary family tree, the book manages to get basic concepts across in a very child-friendly way – of a common origin of all life, and of ancestral and derived traits of the organisms living on earth right now. As Jonathan Tweet told a US newspaper, “It’s a very simple story but a lot of thought has gone into it.”

Natural selection explained simply

In the last section of the book, the author added information for grown-ups and older children to tackle some misunderstandings about evolution people tend to have. Here, names, facts and dates are given, and natural selection is explained in admirably simple terms; even more importantly, in words avoiding the line of thought associating nature with “red in tooth and claw”.

To me, this is a clear sign that Jona­than Tweet is aware of the fact that the religious conservatives aren’t the only influence which might let us shy away from talking about evolution with our kids. For many church-critical progressives the stories about evolution have a bad taste, too, as far-right ideology has often used biologistic evolutionary explanations to fight against an open, egalitarian society.

In my view, Grandmother Fish isn’t primarily written as a challenge to the belief of God creating earth and life on it. It is rather written for the liberal science-loving parent or teacher, who accepts evolution but has trouble with the bad vibrations that result from the twisted and malicious use of evolutionary thinking in social Darwinism. Jonathan Tweet does a great job in avoiding the pitfalls of inept associations that might reduce the enthusiasm of people when talking with their children and pupils about our evolutionary ancestry.

In his book, the idea of the survival of the fittest isn’t a tale about killing and being killed, it is one about safety. The pictures show animals and humans enjoying their lives, caring and being social. And in the science notes at the end of the book Tweet writes, “Baby animals are born with differences, and some differences make them safer. Animals that keep themselves safer have more babies.”

A tale of belonging together

The book surely is about basic science facts, but it also wants to tell a humanist’s tale of interconnection and of belonging together. When it comes to Homo sapiens it says, “We are all closely related, and we are one human race.”

Grandmother Fish is at the printer right now with its Kickstarter investors waiting to get their copy of the 32-page hard cover book. Pre-orderers can join them for $20. Unfortunately, the shipping fee outside of the US is quite high ($30). But according to the author, the book will be available on Amazon, too. In the meantime, you can check out the PDF of a draft version (to be downloaded at – or you can while away your children’s time with an equally recommendable alternative that your Lab Times reviewer finally picked out, when investigating for this review: Neal Layton’s The Story of Everything (published in 2006).

Letzte Änderungen: 15.09.2015