Friday, September 10

Don't Touch That Toad

& Other Strange Things Adults Tell You  
written by Catherine Rondina
illustrated by Kevin Sylvester
Kids Can Press  2010


A collection of superstitions and folklore passed down by adults, refuted and supported, and an attempt to arm kids with the facts behind the phrases.  Entertaining, but it's no snopes.com.

I like the idea of arming kids with the truth as a way of disarming the myths kids often find themselves presented with, whether from parents as this book presents or, as I experienced many of them, from other kids.  Everything from french fries can give you acne to ostriches burying their head in the sand when scared shows up here, with the myth presented on one page with the reveal on the page turn.  Grouped under health, science, weird, and animal, with a special section set aside for the unexplainable things parents say ("I wasn't born yesterday, you know!") Don't Touch That Toad fits snugly among those nonfiction titles that benignly amuse and casually educate.

If only.  

In presenting the information in a light-hearted conspiratorial tone it would be nice if the counterarguments presented had some bite to them, and perhaps a little more background.  Early on we get An apple a day keeps the doctor away which we're told is false.  It's yummy and packed with vitamins but eating one a day won't prevent you from getting sick, a reader is told.  So, yes, technically, it's not correct.  And the text goes on to explain how apples have the ability to kill bacteria in the mouth, helping prevent tooth decay, so it reasons that an apple a day might keep the dentist away.  But what is the origin of the phrase?  If a reader were told that an apple helps fight high cholesterol, that daily apples can improve repertory problems including asthma, that the vitamin C they contain helps promote the immune system, could it be that there's more truth to the phrase than simply the idea that if you eat an apple you won't get sick? 

Another canard I was hit with as a kid is here, If you swallow a watermelon seed, a watermelon will grow inside your stomach.  Preposterous, given the number of seeds accidentally swallowed every year by people of all ages.  My aunt used to scare me that an apple seed (apples again!) if swallowed would grow a tree out of my navel.  In disproving this myth the text goes so far as to talk about a doctor trying to replicate the conditions of a human stomach in which to grow seeds.

He should have tried replicating lungs.  As recently as a couple weeks ago a man was discovered to have a pea germinating in his lungs.  And a year ago a man in Russia was discovered to have a fir tree sprouting in his lung.  It doesn't negate the point that the myth of swallowing seeds holds no merit, but if the point is to arm young readers with facts to bat down their parents this counter-intelligence should include things to arm parents into being more responsible with what they tell children.  Another myth was based on the idea of the "three second rule" for eating food that's been dropped on the floor, but one day recently in the kitchen my kids and I heard an NPR story about a scientist who did studies and found that depending on the environment the rule could extend to a full 18 seconds.  That's quite a different result than the one presented in Don't Touch That Toad. What's a kid to do in the face of such contradictions?

I realize this borders on the idea of criticizing the author on what they didn't write, but the fact is my kids heard the news story about the 18 second rule at the same time I did.  They head about the seeds growing in people's lungs as well.  News of the weird is out there, and in the battle against superstition and urban legend truth is almost always more alarming than fiction, and the best antidote.

Okay, so the book probably shouldn't scare kids with too much depth.  I get that.  But that aside, I would have wished the book included more background into where these notions come from in the first place, especially with the "parentisms" at the end of the book.  Many of these are idiomatic phrases, like no use crying over spilt milk and you made your bed now you lie in it, that are written off as "unexplainable" when clearly they could be. 

I like the idea behind Don't Touch That Toad, I like the format and what it covers, but I'm afraid that if you're going to offer kids information to combat the sayings and aphorisms adults toss out then you need to truly arm them with information that will stop them cold.
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