We’ll see if I get a response

This is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but only sort of…

Hinkler Books Pty Ltd.
45-55 Fairchild Street
Heatherton
Victoria 3202
Australia

August 28, 2012

To Whom It May Concern:

My daughter is about a year and a half and loves your 2006 edition of First Animals.  She loves seeing all the different animals, grouped together in different ways.  As I’ve been reading it to her though, I’ve come to notice a few animals that are named incorrectly, and some that, I believe, deserve a somewhat more specific labeling or accurate ecological categorization.  While I’m sure these taxonomic and ecological issues may seem trivial to other parents, I think that we have a responsibility to accurately teach budding naturalists the correct names and habits of the animals that capture their interest.

In the first section ‘colorful animals’ your ‘dragonfly’ is actually a damselfly.  While both are in the order Odonata, damselflies are distinguished by their smaller size, their tapered wings as they near the base, and their habit of holding their wings parallel to their body (as your photo shows) rather than flat and perpendicular as dragonflies do.

I wonder why you chose to label the Red-eyed tree frog as ‘frog’ in ‘colorful animals’ but gave it some distinction in ‘tree climbers’ as ‘tree frog’?

While your labeling of ‘angelfish’ is correct, it’s rather vague, as marine ‘angelfish’ of the family Pomacanthidae comprises 86 species across three oceans.  ‘Angelfish’ could also refer to a family of Amazonian freshwater cichlids so, as you can see, this colloquial term is really quite broad to apply to a single blue and yellow fish.

Still in ‘colorful animals,’ the ‘beetle’ appears to be a click beetle (probably from the genus Alaus), which is a great addition to the book because it is a familiar insect to kids.  I certainly recognized it from my childhood memories, but I wonder why it wasn’t labeled at least ‘click beetle,’ especially to differentiate it from the (Scarab) ‘beetle’s in the ‘armored animals’ and ‘mini-beasts’ sections?  And really, with an estimated 850,000-4,000,000 species of beetles on the planet, a little differentiation wouldn’t hurt.  You gave family distinction by labeling the ‘longhorn beetle’ in the ‘striped animals’ section after all.

Also in the ‘armored animal’ section your picture of a ‘turtle’ is actually a tortoise – a desert tortoise if I were to guess.  Note the absence of webbed feet.  This appears to be the same tortoise, similarly mislabeled and ironically placed in the ‘water lovers’ section.

Again in the ‘water lovers’ section the ‘seal’ is a sea lion.  Note the external ear flaps and the long hairless fore flippers.  This may sound trivial, but sea lions are a completely separate family from seals, comprising five genera.

The ‘otter’ in the ‘water lovers’ section, while correctly labeled, is more specifically a North American river otter.  As a person who lives where river otters are most often seen in saltwater, it is a personal pet peeve of mine to hear people on beaches refer to these Mustelids as ‘sea otters.’  Therefore I would encourage you to teach young readers the difference between, at least, these two types of otters.

The ‘crocodile’ in the ‘water lovers’ section is a juvenile American alligator.  Note the dark coloring, blunt snout and the black and yellow striped tail.  While phylogenetically you are correct, since all alligators are crocodilians, it seems more accurate to label this little guy an alligator.  The crocodile in the ‘powerful animals’ section is correct.

And why is a toad, and not a frog, featured in the ‘water lovers’ section, when one of the primary differences between the two is a toad’s relative preference for dry, terrestrial habitats?

It seems like the gecko in ‘spotted animals’ and the iguana in ‘tree climbers’ are being a little slighted by being called ‘lizards’ when there is an ocelot and a leopard next door who aren’t just labeled ‘cats.’  The ‘chameleon’ got his name in ‘colorful animals.’

In the ‘striped animals’ section the snake you labeled red, black and white ‘corn snake’ isn’t even close.  A corn snake is a family of snakes, which are mostly orange/yellow.  This snake is unmistakably a Louisiana milk snake, which even southern United States schoolchildren can identify using the pneumonic sing-song to differentiate it from the venomous Texas Coral Snake: “Red and yellow kill a fellow, red and black venom lack.”

I think by this point in the book your editor may have just started to make names up.  The ‘gibbon’ in the ‘tree climbers’ section looks nothing like a gibbon.  This is a Vervet (Chlorocebus pygergythrus), native to eastern Africa scrublands and a member of the superfamily Cercopithecoidea, unlike gibbons who live in southeast Asia and belong to the superfamily Hominoidea!

From my brief experience as a parent, it is my opinion that young children understand much more than many adults give them credit for.  Even our expectations, when it comes to animal identification seems inconsistent – expecting children to have no problem grasping the latin names of some animals like ‘rhinoceros’ or ‘hippopotamus’ (giant animals section) while simply calling a tarantula a ‘spider’ (mini-beasts section).  This probably also reflects our own prejudices and familiarities, but I feel we do a disservice to our little naturalists by not teaching them the names of animals at least down to their taxonomic family, and better yet to their species level.  From watching my daughter, she seems to need no help broadly categorizing different, say, birds as ‘birds,’ unless it is an emu at the zoo.

E.O. Wilson, the distinguished Harvard biologist who has written extensively on the conservation of biological diversity, spent his early childhood in Alabama with his nose to the ground fascinated with ants.  It was the differences between the ants, the different species and what they did that fascinated him.  Identifying those differences leads to nomenclature, correct naming gives power to observation, and observation is the beginning to all empirical scientific knowledge.  By the young age of 13, E.O. Wilson was the first person in the United States to identify a new species of ant to the southern U.S. (the invasive red fire ant).  Surely, this ability to discriminate between ant species did not follow a childhood that regarded all ants, simply, as ‘bugs,’ and I would hope that our early childhood natural history texts would hold a similar expectation for all children.

Sincerely,

Chris Axling

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2 thoughts on “We’ll see if I get a response

  1. Wow Chris I think I bought her that book, because of the title… Great letter, we will see if they reply. I surprised don’t they have people proof read these books for such errors???

  2. Completely erroneous! Luckily Josie has you, who can make sure she doesn’t get her Cercopithecoidea and Hominoidea families mixed up! What nincompoops. Why don’t they just write a book about unicorns and dragons, or other mythical creatures and get all creative, if that’s what they’re doing. Stop messing with real animals and confusing our impressionable children, Hinkler Books. Jeez!

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