The older children and I read The Burgess Animal Book by Thornton Burgess together. We had previously read a good portion of The Burgess Bird Book for Children, which was written first by the same author. Bethany really enjoyed that, so I got this one too, since it was listed on Ambleside Online's book list.
You can get this book for free online, but I usually prefer to go ahead and purchase my books for the cheapest price I can find, usually online and often through Amazon (here's a link to the Amazon page for the edition I have -- you can read others' reviews if you like). It saves time and I like a book form better than a binder with printed pages in it. (That's the way I end up packaging the books I print up to this point, which are usually just those I can't find or think the price is too much to pay compared to printing. For those who print lots of books: Do you have another way to bind them?)
Negatives first. I was rather disappointed in it in a few ways, although there were things I liked, too (listed at the bottom). Bear with me, this got long:
1) My biggest problem with it is the prevalent role played by a character called Old Mother Nature, who is supposed to be not only a teacher for the animals in the story, but also makes claims throughout about having made the animals to be this way or that way. I really don't like that (and didn't recall anything like that in the Bird Book). I prefer to just teach my children the truth that God made the animals. The title of my blog is the closest I come to talking about "Mother Nature/Earth," ;) and really The Mommy Earth has nothing to do with her either.
At first I thought I'd return the book -- I was that disappointed. But, since there were redeeming qualities about it, we were already familiar with the main character of Peter Rabbit, and I didn't happen to have a better option in mind at the moment, I decided I'd just edit it. I changed "Old Mother Nature" to just "Nature" (I think I did "Teacher Nature" in some places where it seemed more appropriate), and considered that it was a personification of nature who was serving as a teacher, but not a creator or a mother. I still wasn't sure exactly what she was, but I guess we just came to think of her as some person called Nature. Well, I know people named after months and seasons, so why not?
This objection to "Old Mother Nature" may seem silly, but having known and spoken with some people who believe in shamanistic spiritual ideas (things along the lines of Native American beliefs) I see threads of it in a lot of children's literature and movies, and it bothers me. I have concern about the impressions these things leave with little children especially (if my children had been older and reading it independently while still discussing with me, instead of aloud, I may not have felt the need to edit so much, but instead may have made it a point of discussion). Especially because these beliefs are becoming more prevalent again in our society, in various forms. I could see a Christian alternatively viewing "Old Mother Nature" or "Mother Earth" as being okay from the perspective that since we are made of the dust of the earth, the earth is our mother in one sense. That's just not my comfort zone.
2) There is some evolutionary content -- no discussion along the lines of billions or millions of years that I recall, but plenty of references to animals as being "little people" and "cousins," etc. I edited some of this and explained some of it. This book categorizes the animals more than does the Bird Book, grouping by scientific families, etc. We discussed this as the way the animals are classified and organized for reference and comparison, and we talked about how many scientists think the similarities mean they are actually related, but while that may or may not be true in some close cases, it's not true in many ways they want it to be or think it is. I did edit some of these references also. Are you thinking this was a lot of editing? Yeah, so was I.
By the way, I think it's good to introduce children to evolutionary concepts (gradually and cautiously, remembering it's essentially another false religion), especially since it's so fundamental to life science classification and discussion these days. I do recommend balancing it with good materials that present creationism, however. There are some good books out there for this (the Bible obviously being the foremost authority). We like some from Apologetics Press (can't vouch for all -- we have Truth Be Told, Dinosaurs Unleashed, and some readers). There are also video materials -- we have Incredible Creatures That Defy Evolution, which we've enjoyed.
3) The classification in this book is also outdated, as it was written some time ago. I didn't consider this a big a deal, though. It can be explained easily with a good lesson about how scientists change their minds about things over time. There are some helpful resources online concerning this problem, and a field guide that's not too old will help you out.
4) One last annoyance (yes, I'm picky) is that the illustrations are in black and white. It's possible there's a version that has color illustrations but I was unable to find it on Amazon when I searched. If you know of one please let me know. There is a Yahoo group, which shares files with color pictures of most of the animals. And it's pretty easy to do a Google image search for animals these days too. What did we do before the Internet?!
*While working on this review, I found this site which I wish I'd known about *before* I started reading this book! Excellent! Thanks, Lindafay!
5) *Edit* Uh oh. Sorry. I wasn't done after all. I was just reminded while working on a post containing my daughter's narration of Rikki Tikki Tavi (which I hope to post at some point) that there's actually one more criticism I have which applies to many books in which animals are personified. It is that the animals are criticized for eating other animals. Also in some (including The Burgess Animal Book) it is even implied that man should not hunt animals. This is another thing that I at times feel the need to either edit or explain/discuss in books like this. I guess I get pretty accustomed to seeing stuff like this, even though it does annoy me and I have a real problem with people trying to guiltify my children about simply living by God's laws. I suppose if this book had been written today it would be saying we're outright destroying the planet. :(
If I haven't entirely persuaded you against this book by now and you're still with me, I'll explain what I DID like about this book:
1) The children enjoyed it (ages 5 through 9, the five year-old not quite as attentive and only present sometimes, however, as she still napped at the time). That's always a good thing.
2) It had something of a story with it to follow as it told about the animals. The animals learn about themselves and each other. Peter Rabbit is the main character and one of the first pupils in a school in the woods, and many more animals join in on the learning as the story goes on.
3) We did learn some useful and interesting things from it. I learned more detail about different types of the smaller mammals especially than I'd known before, and distinguishing them from each other. As I mentioned before, there was a little more (not a lot) information about scientific classification, and I appreciated that from the standpoint of giving them more scientific foundation. This book covers American mammals only.
There are probably other "living" books from which one could get similar benefits as these. I didn't happen to have any alternatives in mind that seemed better when I had this one available to me, however, and I still don't, although it took us quite some time to read this entire book. (Admittedly, I wasn't actively looking for one while reading this, though.) If you've got any suggestions, feel free to mention them! I'm always open to book suggestions!
**Overall evaluation: We enjoyed and learned from this book, after much editing, and with several discussion opportunities. The children enjoyed it more than I did. I would kind of zone a little while reading it to them, I admit. I didn't find it as interesting. I think I'm developing a talent for reading aloud without it registering with my brain at all. I'm not sure this is a good thing, lol. If I were to do it over from the beginning knowing what I know about this book, would I buy it? I'd probably try hard to find something else. But as things are now, since I've already edited it and I'm familiar with it and the children are too, I may go ahead and use it again.
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