Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature by Robin Brande

Speaking of freaks of nature, check out my dog. Stella stuck her head in a garbage bin and couldn’t get out. Not all dog behavior is adaptive. Humans breed them for certain characteristics (like staying cute and puppyish) that wouldn't help them to survive in the wild.

Retrievers are like grown puppies. Their ears remain floppy (instead of perking up like a wolf's ears in adulthood) as this secondary trait accompanies domesticity. If you selectively breed foxes to be friendly to humans, their ears droop too. In Robin Brande's young adult novel, Evolution, Me and Other Freaks of Nature, two teenagers test the theory of evolution on a litter of puppies.

The book opens with a living nightmare: Mena Reece has been expelled from her church for doing what she believed to be the right thing. Even Mena’s parents are disappointed in her. The Reeces have lost social standing and their family business is threatened. Everyone blames Mena. She starts high school with all of her friends hating her.

Then Mena makes a new friend in Biology class. Casey is a boy genius with a sense of humor and a house full of puppies (smarter than mine.) Plus he’s cute. Life is good until Ms. Shepherd begins the unit on evolution. In protest, all of Mena’s old church buddies physically turn their backs on the teacher. They demand that Ms. Shepherd teach intelligent design, not evolution. Mena is in a quandary: can she believe in evolution and in God? Mena opens her Bible and searches for a resolution. She blogs as Bible Grrrl.

Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature is a sweet, innocent story which I think would appeal most to girls aged 11-14. The science is explained and simplified for young readers and put in a real-life context. I would have loved having Ms. Shepherd as a teacher. She really brings the subject to life and makes it fun without sounding too didactic.

Mena narrates the story day-by-day with lots of detail, just like my middle school children when they come home from school. As a result, the voice sounds authentic, but the story doesn’t really take off until we finally hear what it was that Mena did that turned her church against her. Keep reading, it’s worth it. Curiosity and good writing kept me going.

It was an excellent choice to have an evangelical teenager who likes science as the protagonist. Mena is a very sympathetic and likable character. I wish Brande had fleshed out the other evangelical characters because it was hard to see why Mena was once friends with them. All we hear about is how mean and unreasonable they are to Mena and to others.

Nonetheless, this isn’t an anti-religion book but an exploration of how one might reconcile faith and science. Brande was once a Sunday School teacher. It’s a book with a message and won an American Library Association Notable Book Award for 2007.

Additional Reading:

My friend Maria Padian, a YA author, recommended Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature to me because my novel, S.A.D. (not yet published,) deals with a similar topic. My story is about school board politics and how the issue of intelligent vs. evolution divides a small town. I use adult and teenaged characters of several faiths to give multiple perspectives. It was interesting to see this material interpreted for a younger audience. Brande did a great job with it.

I’d recommend Born Again by Kelly Kerney to all ages. It’s a young adult crossover novel about a teenaged girl discovering evolution and questioning her evangelical beliefs. The author was raised in a Pentecostal Church and graduated from Bowdoin College. It's very good.

To learn more about the philosophical debate on intelligent design, read Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics, edited by Robert T. Pennock. It includes essays on both sides, although the editor is a critic of I.D. The thick book is an excellent resource geared toward a college audience.

For anyone looking for a guide to the American legal history, I’d recommend In the Light of Evolution: Science on Trial by Randy Moore published by the National Association of Biology Teachers. It was designed as a classrom supplement for high school teachers.

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@Barrie Summy

Congratulations to my daughter! She has a poem, “American in England,” in the summer issue of KidSpirit Magazine.

Have a Happy Fourth of July! I’m taking a blog vacation to hang out at the beach with the kids and my paint brushes. I’ll be back in two weeks to show you around North London where I collected material for NOT CRICKET (my work in progress.)
Next post: Wednesday July 15th.


Tracy Golightly-Garcia said...

Hope Stella is fine-what a beautiful dog! I am very happy for your daughter-my daughter has started keeping a journal and even at the age of nine she told me, "it was her private book."
Have a nice two weeks off.
Tracy :)

pattinase (abbott) said...

What a great review. Thanks so much.

Cynthia Pittmann said...

I enjoyed your review, Sarah. Also, the book recommendations are excellent. Recently, my daughter's boyfriend was doing research on the same topic and I read several articles from the news and scholarly understandings. I was curious about how to write about this topic with sensitivity. I think your author hit upon a great approach. BTW, when will S.A.D. be publish? Is it available anywhere? Have a lovely summer break. <3

Cynthia Pittmann said...

Oh and I forgot to tell you that your puppy-ish Stella is adorable in this photo...poor playful girl! <3

tina said...

Awww, poor Stella. I hope she gets better soon and is not in too much pain.

Sarah Laurence said...

Tracy, thanks and Stella is fine. Your daughter sounds like mine. How sweet!

Pattinase, thanks, I enjoyed your review too.

Cynthia, it is a most fascinating subject and very current. My novel S.A.D. is under consideration at several publishing houses now. I will definitely post in my blog when (if?) it will be published. Stella has to be cute to make up for all the trouble. Poor pup.

Sarah Laurence said...

Tina, Stella was in no pain at all. She was very pleased for her garbage snack if a bit nonplussed by her new collar. The mess was a pain, however.

Laura said...

Wonderful post, Sarah. I think this is a timeless topic that many of us probably try to find our own answers to, given our own education on the various subject of evolution and/or religious teachings over the years. I hope Stella gets better! Enjoy your vacation!

David Cranmer said...

Ah, poor Stella. But what a cute dog though. We are thinking about getting a retriever at some point.

I would like the "evangelical teenager who likes science" concept also. I believe the two can live harmonious and I bet it is interesting to read in EVOLUTION.

Hana Njau-Okolo said...

I think my god-daughter will enjoy this book. Your review was lovely. You interspered it with an interesting episode in Stella's life. And when I came to Casey, his genius and his smart puppies, I thought: how interesting...I wonder, perhaps Stella is evolving much like the talented, curious, creative, artistic family she belongs to? Congrats to your daughter! The mag is not a free online one is it? I could not find her poem. Would love to read it.

Enjoy your time off!

Elizabeth said...

Loved your poor dog with the garbage can lid.......too funny.
I remember the incident with the i-pod.......

The books you discuss really deal with topic that would be very engaging for teens who are questing.
There is no way to prove the existance of God....similarly no way to prove his/her/its non-exitance.

Yes, fundamentalists of all stripes do tend to be awfully MEAN and self-righteous.
Enjoy the beach.

☆sapphire said...

Thank you for great reviews!
It is interesting to know about the arguement; the concept or possibility of intelligent design is to be included in the science curriculum of schools or not.
I'm afraid we have placed a disproportionate emphasis on Charles Darwin's theory in Japan.
I don't think that's been good....
Would love to read yours too!!

Enjoy your two weeks off!

Bee said...

So many good recommendations here, Sarah. It is a really important issue for our time. I am definitely earmarking Brande's book for my younger daughter.

And speaking of ears: poor Stella! Does she get to go to the beach?

Congratulations to your daughter on having her poem published. Creativity definitely runs in your family . . . but how much is down to genes and how much is the environment, I wonder.

troutbirder said...

Poor Stella. These adventurous,curious dogs. I am waiting for mine to pull something like this.
I know I would like the first book having taught 13 year old for a few years, being interested in science and appalled at the "intellient design" (be nice here now) "folks."
Have a nice vacation Sarah.

Rose said...

This sounds like a great book that should be on every school library shelf. Certainly a timely topic.

Poor Stella! I'm a little worried about your comment that retrievers are "like grown puppies." My own Golden, Sophie, is 7 months old, and I keep wondering when she will grow out of this mischievous stage. This doesn't sound promising...:)

Congratulations to your daughter! It's always exciting to see your work in print.

Linda McLaughlin said...

Poor Stella, I hope she won't have to wear that plastic necklace forever. ;) You're right, retrievers are overgrown puppies. They never lose that sweet innocence.

Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature sounds really interesting and your review made me want to read it. Sounds like you've really done your research for your book. It's an important topic.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Makes sense...both my dogs have floppy ears, and both are incredibly friendly!

Sounds like a wonderful book. A cute, smart boy with a house full of puppies! He would have been my dream man!

Have fun at the beach, and congratulate your daughter for me.
Edward sends his best to Stella!

Sarah Laurence said...

Laura, the topic is endlessly fascinating. We are enjoying our beach time and trying to keep Stella out of the garbage.

David, retrievers are great family dogs, but they are mischievous. Brande does find common ground for science and religion while still keeping them separate.

Mama Shujaa, I like your new profile photo. My daughter wants to read this book too. The magazine is only available through the website for purchase, either individually or year subscription. I’ll email the poem to you when I can.

Elizabeth, I had to wait to stop laughing before I could snap the photo. You make an excellent point about proving the existence of God, which is why scientific theory can’t include divine causation. Scientific theories must be falsifiable. I don’t support fundamentalism, but many of the evangelicals that I’ve known are good people and kind.

Sapphire, scientists do not consider intelligent design a scientific theory (see Elizabeth’s comment and my reply.) The distinction is explained well in Brande’s book. In my novel I try to express the range of beliefs that is out there and let the reader draw his or her own conclusions. To learn more about the intelligent design vs. evolution debate on Wikipedia follow the link (from intelligent design) in my blog. I hope you do get to read my book some day. Thanks!

Bee, I think this book would be right for your younger daughter. Stella loves the beach. We swam with her this morning. I guess my daughter got the genes and the environment. I’m very proud of her getting published at 11. Her brother is a talented writer too but prefers facts. For humans there is a lot of choice on how we employ our gifts of nature.

Troutbirder, you would LOVE this book. The teacher is a wonderful character, and you’d appreciate the humor and the pups. Let me know what you think of it.

Rose, it probably already is in most school libraries after the ALA notable book award. My first golden was less mischievous than this one, but they do stay puppyish. We’ve clipped her fur short for the summer and everyone thinks she’s a puppy, but Stella is almost 5. At least her appearance matches her behavior now. I’m looking forward to reading your review.

Linda, welcome to my blog! Stella had to wear her “necklace” for as long as it took me stop laughing and snap a shot. I hope she’s learned a lesson but fear she hasn’t. I’d be curious to hear what you think of Brande’s book.

Pamela, I do prefer floppy eared dogs for pets. Casey and his pups are fun. Stella sends a wagging tail back to Edward.

Sarahlynn said...

Your review of Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature is compelling. It's hard to imagine such an issue specific book where the main conflict is internal rather than external that does not sound forced. I'm impressed that Brande pulled it off!

This might be a factor of where I am in my career, but I find it very difficult to write fiction about political hot topics where the politics doesn't get a little ahead of the plot.

(I threw out the first draft of my current work-in-progress for exactly that reason. It used to be about church groups protesting a religiously themed video game, now it's about someone targeting the game's designer for more personal reasons. The politics and churches are still there, just a step removed.)

Alyssa Goodnight said...

This sounds like an excellent book--great premise and some really unique characters.

Lovely review--I'm putting it on my list! Enjoy your mini-break and big congratulations to your daughter!

A Cuban In London said...

Many thanks for such a fantastic review. I love the way religion is woven into the story and I can only imagine what that little kid is feeling when she gets all that opprobrium heaped upon her by her family. Many thanks and I hope you have a fab holiday.

Greetings from London.

Sarah Laurence said...

Sarahlynn, Brande’s novel works. There is more going on than just meshing faith with science. It’s also a coming of age story about first love, self-discovery and taking chances. I love books that make me think as well as feel. Your book ideas sound interesting and original, either way you take it. I often find that a story evolves as I write it. Good luck with it!

Alyssa, I’d love to hear what you think of it. Thanks!

ACIL, the novel was quite a dramatic story on a personal level. I am enjoying some down time to read, but I still hope the rain will stop. At least we made it to the beach this morning before the storm came. I can’t remember such a wet summer as this in New England.

Barrie said...

Congratulations to your daughter! I really enjoyed this review. And I love how you tied your dog in with Evolution, Me and Other Freaks of Nature!

Sarah Laurence said...

Barrie, thanks for hosting another fabulous book review club. Yes, I’m a proud owner of a freak of nature. I guess garbage scavenging could be adaptive, IF the dog had a better sense of spatial relations.

Rosaria Williams said...

Congratulations to your daughter on her achievemnet. I enjoyed the review and the accompanying background on the issues covered in the book. I look forward to your book as its premise is intriguing.

Unknown said...

Congrats to your daughter!

Sarah Laurence said...

Lakeviewer, thank you! I do hope to share my novel with you someday.

Andrew, thanks! It’s another first step.

Curmudgeon said...

Congratulations to your daughter!!! Priceless shot of Stella! How did you stop laughing long enough to shoot it? I Saw your comment over at ACIL's blog. BTW, I discovered ACIL through your blog and was immediately drawn in by the "C" in his title. I don't remember it as a difficult transition--PB&J aside--but I imagine it was extremely hard on my parents.

I enjoyed this post very much. But it brought back some not so fond memories of my time spent teaching in NE. ID and C were front and center at the small college where I taught--not just an issue in the middle/high schools.

Thank you for the book recommendations. Enjoy your time at the beach!

Kelly H-Y said...

Wow ... great reviews! And, congrats to your daughter too! That's wonderful! The picture of your pup cracked me up!

♥ Boomer ♥ said...

Oh, goodness. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry at the pic of the doggy! She's beautiful. And obviously smart. Knows what she wants in life.

Thank you for the always wonderful reviews.

I hope that you have a splendid weekend. ♥

Mary Ellen said...

Thanks for the review. It's an interesting subject. My younger son was studying the Scopes trial this past year in school.

Poor Stella! It's hard when people think you're not smart, just because you're beautiful.

Enjoy your vacation. I hope the weather improves for you - at this point, it pretty much HAS to get better, doesn't it?

Sarah Laurence said...

Curmudgeon, it was hard to get a clear shot – my hands kept shaking from laughter. I’m glad to have connected you and ACIL. Creationism/Intelligent Design continues to be issue. The latest iteration is “strengths and weaknesses” when teaching evolution. Also the Dover case in PA (ruling against ID) only applies to that court district. ID has not come before the Supreme Court yet. Even so, as long as a college/school is private, they will be allowed to teach ID. It's all so complicated - I had an educational lawyer friend check my manuscript even though it's a fictional case.

Kelly and Boomer, thanks!

Mary Ellen, that’s an interesting topic to study in high school. I continue to be an optimist about the weather. I feel like we are now owed a clear July 4th.

SG said...

Sarah, hope you had a great Independence Day! Congratulations to your daughter :)

kayerj said...

nice review, and congratulations to your daughter. my review

TBM said...

Oh your poor Stella! I hope she is feeling better now.

And well done to your daughter!

Tessa said...

Another wonderful post, Sarah. I do love your reviews, they are so succint and so beautifully written. I always find, when I peruse them, that I want to read each and every one. And many congratulations to your daughter - I see that the apple has not fallen far from the tree!

Sarah Laurence said...

Phoenix, thank you!

Kaye, thanks for the link. Somehow I accidentally skipped your book review. I’ll come visit soon.

JAPRA, Stella, as always, bounced right back to normal. I’m very proud of my daughter. It’s good to have you back online!

Tessa, that’s such a sweet comment, thank you. Half the fun of reading a good book is sharing it with friends. It's also fun to share a love of writing with my daughter.

Jan said...

Congratulations to your daughter! I bet you experienced a real thrill of pride ...almost as much as she did.
I havent blogged for a while but thorouhly enjoying reading your posts: fun AND informative , Thanks Sarah!

Sarah Laurence said...

Jan, welcome back and thank you. Yes, I was even more excited than my daughter.

apprentice said...

Thanks for the information on floppy dog ears in relation to traits in domestication.

I'm not sure about evolution or God, I think both fell down on the job when they failed to ensure that giving birth was by means of velcro pouches :)

Sarah Laurence said...

Ha, apprentice! Welcome to my blog. Humor is always welcome.