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these myths, such as Odin’s choice of tree trunks in the Norse creation myths or the battle between two lizards in the Aboriginal Dreamtime story of the creation of night and day. I ask him whether these stories were an important part of his childhood. Fairy tales, biblical myths, Charles Kingsley’s The Heroes, and Kipling’s The Jungle Book and Just So Stories were among his favourites. Perhaps this background of myths and storytelling is what has enabled him to develop his own strong voice in his books. Like many of his other books, this one is available in an audio format, read by Dawkins and his wife Lalla Ward, so the idea of an audience is always present.

In the book Dawkins draws on myths from around the world, including Ancient Greek, Babylonian, Judaeo-Christian, Aztec, North American, Chinese and Japanese. And yes, the biblical stories, whether the Creation story or the miracle of water being turned into wine are dismissed as soundly as other kinds of stories. Dawkins is keen to show us that scientific reality has a beauty that exceeds those of ancient myths.

The cultural diversity of such stories does provide a wonderful launch pad for illustrator Dave McKean whose richly detailed artwork colours every page. Dawkins may have provided source material for the scientific diagrams, but the flights of fancy are McKean’s stock in trade. This produces a very different result from the DK world of white backgrounds with plentiful annotations and captions. Illustrations here are used to augment the text and provide aide-memoires as the text develops an argument. Where they do leap to life is in the iPad app, which the publisher has developed in parallel. Dawkins is keen to show me how this works on several levels, not just as an e-reader that includes all the text, but with animations, simulations and video. Interactive diagrams are particularly effective at explaining scientific concepts, such as for example Newton’s theory that all orbits are controlled by gravity as demonstrated by a giant cannon firing balls that travel such a distance they go into orbit. Dawkins is clearly delighted at how well the app is

sustained reading that is required. We are so often told that children’s attention span has been fragmented by constant use of the internet. Here Dawkins defends the fact that children do have the stamina to enjoy JK Rowling, Pullman and even Enid Blyton (admitting that he was not allowed to read her as a child). The comparison with fiction is surely appropriate, for it is undoubtedly Dawkins’ skill as a storyteller that enables him to retain the reader’s interest while presenting complex concepts and developing ideas. ‘I do get the sense that the young are exam-driven. Teachers constantly complain to me that they have to worry about the curriculum rather than exploring ideas and teaching what is interesting.’

One aspect of the book that still puzzles me is the implied suggestion that today’s children, feet firmly rooted in reality and hard facts, will choose myths rather than scientific explanation. Dawkins says he is genuinely undecided, based on his own intuition and own experience as a child. ‘Inspired by Dr Doolittle and years of church sermons I actually did believe that if I wished and prayed for something strongly enough I could make it happen. Being steeped in a diet of magic spells and witches waving wands and changing one thing into another, I do wonder whether this predisposes a child to be sufficiently sceptical. There is something in the way that fiction of that sort can breed gullibility.’

The question clearly intrigued him for he invited Philip Pullman to write an article on just this topic in the Christmas issue of the New Statesman that he was guest editing. ‘Pullman is strongly rational, yet his books are magical. He thinks that children are perfectly capable of distinguishing between the imagined and the real world.’

We turn back to the book and I notice that there is a quote by Pullman on the cover: ‘The clearest and most beautifully written introduction to science I’ve ever read.’ I can only agree with him. n

The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins, ill. Dave McKean (272pp, 978 0 5930 6612 6) is published by Bantam Press at £20.00.

Sue Unstead was a publisher of children’s non-fiction for 25 years and is now a freelance editorial consultant and writer.

selling, rivalling the book which reached no.2 in the adult bestseller lists (only to be toppled by celebrity cooks and boy band biographies).

Skill as a storyteller

We talk more about the audience for his book and to what extent he tested it on children. Dawkins explains how he had feedback on the text from a number of science teachers at a London school, but the greater involvement was with a school in Moray Firth where children read and reviewed sections of the manuscript. His target age group was 12 years, although children as young as age 7 were able to access the text if read aloud by an adult. Dawkins was particularly taken with the fact that all the children cited a particular passage as their favourite part – on evolution – that if you could line up photographs of all your ancestors going back generation by generation, by the time you got back to your 185-million-great-grandparent the picture would resemble some kind of extraordinary deep-sea fish. And where there is explanation of the relative sizes and distances, of the earth from the sun for example, he got the children to act it out on a playing field, with a football (sun), a peppercorn (earth) and a pinhead (moon).

Perhaps it is not so much the text level but the amount of text and Books for Keeps No.192 January 2012 11

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