Before you even open Annabelle & Aiden in The Story of Life, you know it’s going to be beautiful and imaginative – so rich in detail is the cover illustration. And it doesn’t disappoint. J.R. Becker (who actually works as an attorney in New York) has set himself the task of teaching evolution to young children, and it proves to be a vital primer on how we got here. But why did it prove controversial in some quarters? And why did Becker choose to self-publish? Literati talks survival of the fittest.
Joseph “J.R.” Becker grew up in an orthodox Jewish family but while he says his parents “gradually became more religious over the years,” Becker says he was always questioning what he was told at the religious schools he went to, and always looking to science to fill what he saw as a huge knowledge gap. “I was so excited by science I was like a kid in a candy store.”
When he turned 34 and had two children of his own (Annabelle and Aiden), and noticing a dearth of books that explained how we got here, Becker decided to impart that love of science, but he says there was immediate pushback from friends. “They said evolution was science, not a story, and too difficult to convey to children. But I said it’s totally a story. Once upon a time… and it could be broken down simply enough so that children could understand it and be inspired by it.”
He decided to tell the story of life through the dreamed-up adventures of his own two children. And so Annabelle and Aiden became the vehicle through which Becker would tell the complex story of evolution. Having come from a deeply religious family, though, he acknowledged there could be some hills to overcome. “But the book was never going to be anti-religion or faith,” he says. “They’re pro-science, pro- critical thinking. I wanted to inspire children with what we know to be true, and I wanted to stay away from words like atheism and avoid any negative spin.”
Becker sent the manuscript off to a number of publishers but didn’t get a response. Rather than spend his time hawking it around any further, he decided that technology had advanced enough to the point where self-publishing via an online platform was a legitimate option. “I even hired my illustrator [Max Rambaldi] through the internet,” he says. “And I’ve still never met her or even spoken to her over the phone. She lives in a little village in Italy.”
He decided to crowd fund the book initially, thinking he may raise $800. “But I raised $4,400 in pre-orders on Kickstarter,” he says. He’s now writing his fourth children’s book — What Happens When We Die? which tackles the subject of death. Oh, The Things We Believed, about skepticism and critical thinking, and Worlds Within Us, an exploration of the universe, were both published last year and raised more than $11,000 and $18,500 on Kickstarter respectively.
“Kickstarter was an enormous help; a lot of fun, and I didn’t think I’d raise as much as I did,” Becker says.
The Story of Life begins with Annabelle and Aiden looking at their reflection in a lake and wondering why they look the way they do. It explores cell division, reproduction, and how life changed over time. And Becker employs simple rhyme to tell his story:
“Some mouths became beaks that could dig in the sand. Some fins became legs that could walk on the land.”
A story on the Christian News Network called it an “evolution-propagandizing illustrated children’s book” and said evolutionists were “increasingly targeting young children in their campaign to spread Darwinian mantra.” The story added that “a few well-known evolutionists, including Bill Nye and Lawrence Krauss, have praised Annabelle & Aiden for its potential to convince young readers of evolution’s validity.”
I ask Becker whether he thought the book was controversial. “In America it is controversial. Very controversial – I think because we live in a very religious country compared to western Europe and a big part of the Christian community is reading the Bible literally as a historic and scientific document. I don’t know how accurate it is but a lot of people quote the statistic that 30% or 40% of Americans believe in evolution, but that 70% believe angels or ghosts are real. Either way the feedback I’ve had has been overwhelmingly positive.”
Becker says he knew of a handful of children’s books that tackled evolution and natural selection but that there was “clearly a need.”
His last book Worlds Within Us begins with Annabelle asking how the universe was formed. Becker says he attempts to explain the Big Bang and how we’re all made of stardust; all connected.
“The underlying message is when we feel down and small, remember: we’re all much bigger than we think.
In Oh, The Things We Believed he takes his young readers through the myths of our time “like flat earth, storks delivering babies, Greek mythology, aliens. I explain the scientific method and how fairy tales are great but that the things we know — like how we’re all related in one big family tree — is even greater. It’s a very pro-science and life-affirming book.”
I tell Becker that I imagine his biggest challenge is explaining such vast periods of time involved in his books to children so young. “It is hard,” he says. “You can use huge numbers but it helps that my first book goes through different ages — the Precambrian period, Cambrian, etc — and teaching children about each age helps them appreciate the longevity of the Earth. But that concept might have to wait until they’re a little older.”