What makes a child want to become a scientist? I get asked that question rather a lot when I talk about Women in Science, by anxious parents and grandparents who want to make sure they aren’t somehow stifling the next Jane Goodall by not sending her to enough preparatory math camps or buying the right educational toys. But the real answer is far simpler: Access to, and leisure to explore, Nature.
So many of the scientists I’ve talked to over the past four years have said that their love of science started out amongst the bugs of their back yard or the plants of a nearby forest, observing and measuring and questioning. It seems an obvious point to make now, that the early study of science should feature regular observation of nature’s workings, but it was not part of our basic educational wisdom until Anna Bostford Comstock (1854-1930) came along and argued hard for a Nature Exploration component of all elementary school teaching. She wrote detailed nature guides to help teachers lead their students on field trips and, in spite of having been written over a hundred years ago, the most famous of them is still very much in print. Her books’ charm and enthusiasm have a sort of Beatrix Potter evergreen quality that energized a generation of teachers who in turn inspired a century of students to care about the natural world, and devote their lives to studying it.
Comstock is, in short, a person who deserves to be known, but her life story has remained out of print for some time. The 1953 autobiography written by her husband is a collector’s item, and Cos Ferrera’s young reader biography from 2004 is similarly a pricey and difficult to find volume. Enter Out of School and Into Nature: The Anna Comstock Story (2017), written by Suzanne Slade and illustrated by Jessica Lanan. It is a first to fourth grade children’s book which, in its 32 gorgeously illustrated pages, gives children the broad outline of Comstock’s life and work.
And it just might be my favorite children’s level women in science book ever.
That genre, which used to feature little more than a meager handful of Marie Curie stories, has been taking off the last few years, with some very lovely books, but there’s always been something important missing. There have been books with engaging illustrations that slouched a bit more than comfortable when it came to historical accuracy, and books that have been accurate but that had all the charm of a dental insurance brochure.
Out of School hits everything precisely right. The narrative is artistically told, with a deeply poignant and perfectly executed last page that I won’t spoil for you. Slade brings a unique voice into the storytelling in a way many science biography authors do not allow themselves, and manages to bring that curious, explorative tone you find throughout Comstock’s Handbook of Nature Study (1911) into her narrative style. The result is a perfect combination of color, character and historical/scientific accuracy that I had more or less given up on hoping for.
To prove how effective that voice is, let me share that, when I was reading this to my younger daughter, who is in 4th grade, my older daughter, who is in 7th, came into the room, sat down, and listened as well just to hear the story tell itself out, and that is an occurrence that more or less never happens.
But a child’s book is not words alone, it is words and pictures that have found a dialogue with each other, and here again, Out of School shines. Lanan’s watercolors are whimsical, almost fragile, and unstuck from time. They take you out of your world of text alerts and Netflix binge watching and put you right back, for a few moments, into a time when you had the mental space to be curious about what was outside. There is a soft and beckoning quality to the illustrations that whispers to children glancing through its pages, “Go out, explore, find something new to you,” which is priceless. Slade and Lanan seem to be precisely on the same page, and here’s hoping that they get to work together on other such volumes in the future.
If you have children who live at the pace of technology, it’s a book you should have. Or if you don’t, and you just want, every once in a while, to stroll through a Anne of Green Gables like naturescape in the company of a remarkable person from history, it’s a book you should have. It’s going on the Top Shelf of my Women in Science bookcases, to hang out with the greats of the genre, and wait for future siblings to keep it company.
Oh, and, quick note, you might be inclined to pick up a copy of Comstock’s Handbook and head out into the woods after you read Out of School, which you way should, but be aware the most readily available copy in print is the Cornell edition, which is essentially a reprint of the 1986 reissuing of the 1939 edition, which added photos and updated entries that tried to maintain the Comstock spirit and by and large succeeded, but it’s not ALL Comstock, just so you’re aware.