Thursday, February 22, 2018

Book Review: Life Story by Virginia Lee Burton (1962)

Life Story is Virginia Lee Burton's seventh and final book, published in 1962. In a prologue and five acts, Burton traces the story of life on earth, beginning with the birth of the sun and the formation of our planet, and highlighting major periods of the paleozoic, mesozoic, cenozoic, and recent eras, before concluding with a section on the seasons of the year and times of the day. Illustrated with full-color paintings and black-and-white diagrams, this book helps young children place themselves in time, space, and history, and provides them with an overview of natural history and evolution that can serve as a scaffold on which later deeper study can build.

This book is truly a masterpiece. I don't think I have ever read a more engaging, more attractive, or more emotionally resonant nonfiction book for children, or for any other audience. Burton includes details that are interesting to children - what creatures ate, the fact that cephalapods had feet on their heads, volcanic activity, the discovery of fire by early human beings - but she also drives home the fleeting nature of our own lives and the brevity of our era as compared with all those eons that have gone before.

Though there is no explicit mention of religion in this book, I found it very easy to see God's hand in everything Burton describes. For me, as a Catholic, I accept evolution as the means by which God accomplished his creation, and it was easy to present that worldview to my four-year-old as I shared the book with her. The details in the illustrations also make it possible for kids who don't read yet to enjoy the book and to gain a basic understanding of the changes to our planet and its inhabitants over time.

Apparently, this book was updated in 2009 to correct some outdated information (about Pluto, and brontosauruses, and other similar details), but I own the original edition and plan to stick with it. With the Internet at our fingertips, and other books in our collection, we'll be able to fill in any newly-discovered information that has been left out without having to try and figure out which pieces of Burton's text have been changed. It also saves me from the annoying political correctness of seeing "prehistoric man" changed to "prehistoric humans," which seems like such a petty little edit to make to such a wonderful book. Even my four-year-old understands that "man" (or "men" as she hears it in the Nicene creed at Mass) is a generic term intended to include all people and not an oppressive word designed to keep her and other girls out.

This is a book to own, to cherish, and to read many times over. I cannot say enough about how much I enjoyed it or how wonderfully it makes a big concept - the very nature of life on Earth - into something a child can easily wrap his mind around.

1 comment:

  1. Virginia Lee Burton is a family favorite, but I've not explored much beyond Mike Mulligan and her Little House book!
    Thanks for this review.