Why Read “Out of Date” Science Books?

August 27, 2019

Two weekends ago, I attended a presentation by Nicole Williams of A Delectable Education and Sabbath Mood Homeschool that was titled “Science: A Vast and Joyous Realm.” In her talk, Nicole addressed taking a Charlotte Mason based approach to teaching science, with particular emphasis on nature study. Toward the end of the presentation, one audience member asked Nicole a striking question: “Why do you promote older science books when they contain information that is sometimes wrong?”

I was very nearly on the edge of my seat waiting to hear Nicole’s answer, as many of the older science books that she recommends are in fact Yesterday’s Classics publications. And although Nicole addressed the question with grace and concision, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it or about the many different reasons to read “outdated” science books.

Accordingly, today’s post is our response to that challenging and thought-provoking question.

Reading living books

First and foremost, the science books we republish at Yesterday’s Classics are considered living books, meaning that they are narrative accounts that awaken the mind of the reader and bring the topic to life for him. These books are intended to instruct, but also to engage the reader and to arouse their curiosity. A living book should encourage readers to seek out more information on a topic, not extinguish all interest.  We want a living book to be one of the first books that a student reads on that particular subject, and by no means the last. Ideally, a living book animates both the topic and the reader, and spurs the reader on to further independent and sustained inquiry. Although there is no strict date range to determine a living book, we find that most living science books were published before 1970.

Another major benefit of choosing this sort of book is that the reader is given the chance to participate in the process of discovery along side of the author. When facts are presented as such, it is much easier to passively accept them than when they are developed in a more narrative fashion. In the latter modality, the reader is encouraged to develop his own capacities for discovery and reasoning.

Modeling scientific inquiry

A further reason we recommend living books is that the authors of these books typically provide excellent examples to their readers of how to think, not merely what to think. An exposition of how an author has arrived at a conclusion, or simply a narrative statement of their thoughtful observations can help readers better understand the reasoning process. It is particularly important for younger scientists and readers to see each observation and logical inference laid out in succession so that they are given a model for the step-wise process of scientific reasoning. We also find that living books tend to emphasize the observation process, which is another critical skill to model for students of all ages.

Living books, including the science books we republish at Yesterday’s Classics, show readers how accessible scientific inquiry is. Inquiry is not a process that can only occur in a laboratory setting; it is a means of moving through the world, a heightened awareness of – and curiosity toward – our surroundings and the mechanisms by which they operate.

Cultivating intellectual resiliency 

Furthermore, as the scientific community continues to pursue difficult questions and continues to engage in research, ideas that have long been accepted as truth will be overturned. And it’s important for young scientists and students to understand that these changes are a natural – and even exciting – part of the trajectory of scientific discovery. Human understanding of scientific phenomena has changed significantly since the beginning of recorded history, and will continue to change as new discoveries are made. However, such discoveries do not necessarily render older findings useless, as those prior beliefs were often a necessary precursor to subsequent ones.

It’s vital for scientists to look at those invalidated beliefs and the observations that disproved them. Understanding the transitions from older beliefs to newer ones is the process of science, and is also the place, in my opinion, where the greatest educational efforts should be placed. It is examining this process that best teaches students how to think critically. Original texts and living science books serve as particularly invaluable resources in this regard.

In keeping with the idea of looking at paradigmatic transitions, it’s also important to impart intellectual resiliency to students, particularly in the sciences. If one element of a theory is overturned, in most cases a student’s system of understanding will still remain more or less intact. So what should a scientist (or any human being) do when their previous beliefs were invalidated? Is it best to put the matter out of mind entirely, and do one’s best to forget about the error? Or should we take this opportunity as a gift and reexamine our previous mistakes? Looking at mistakes is one of the most fertile opportunities for instruction and for growth. It also encourages intellectual resiliency, which we believe, is just as vital a skill for young people to develop as emotional resiliency, especially for those who are interested in the sciences!

Other reasons to read older science books

  • Older books provide an outstanding opportunity to study the history of science even as you study scientific material.
  • The literary merit of older authors is often unmatched by their modern peers.
  • Students gain a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the foundations of science, and the origins of scientific ideas.
  • Readers can learn to critically evaluate primary sources for themselves.
  • Modern readers may be astonished to learn just how much ancient and medieval scientists were able to discover with the limited tools available to them.
  • It is far easier for students who have learned to think critically to learn newer material later on, once they have already established a strong intellectual foundational.

Share your experience

What do you think about reading older or “outdated” science books or articles with your children or students? What aspects of those experiences have been beneficial or frustrating? Please let us know in a comment below!

The Logan Family Saga

August 15, 2019

Earlier this summer, we wrote about a book called The Land. Although the last published of all Mildred D. Taylor’s books, The Land is technically the first of the six books that compose the Logan Family Saga. The Saga also contains three other full-length novels that are set after The Land, and two novellas. In this post, we’re focusing on those three full-length novels: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1976), Let the Circle Be Unbroken (1981), and The Road to Memphis (1992). These books all follow Paul-Edward Logan’s young grand-daughter, Cassie Logan, and her immediate family members. Although Paul-Edward has passed away, Cassie, her mother and father, three brothers, and Big Ma (Paul-Edward’s cherished wife) all still live on the land that Paul-Edward and Caroline fought so hard to obtain decades earlier.

Of all the Mildred Taylor books, it is these three books that are best known to modern readers, and for excellent reason: Cassie and her siblings are the sort of protagonists that every young reader longs for in a novel – precocious, strong-willed, and daring.

As in The Land, the conflicts that arise in these books are primarily centered on issues of race. Cassie and her family are the direct descendants of slaves and live on 400 acres of property that they own themselves, a rare accomplishment at the time. However, despite owning their own land, the family continues to struggle to protect it, and continues to fight to protect their children from discrimination and even danger.

One of the most moving aspects of this series is observing how these encounters affect the children. Cassie and one of her brothers, Little Man, have a particularly hard time coming to grips with the ways in which they are treated differently than their white peers, and refuse to accept the racial injustices they routinely encounter, often at a significant cost to themselves and their family. Another theme that is shared between these books and The Land is that of friendship and the near impossibility of white and black people sustaining relationships of any kind with one another. The character Jeremy Simms perhaps best illustrates this issue, becoming simultaneously a hero and a pariah in the beginning of The Road to Memphis.

We’ve given a brief overview of each book here, and just as we did in our post on The Land, we’ve added discussion questions about the aforementioned issues as well as a handful of others at the end of the post, so be sure to take a look at those, as well!

“Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry”

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is Mildred Taylor’s Newbery-winning introduction to Cassie Logan and her family. Cassie lives in a multi-generational home with her older brother, Stacy, and two younger brothers, Christopher and Little Man, Mary and David (her mother and father), and Big Ma on the acreage that Paul-Edward bought years earlier in The Land. Mary is a school-teacher, and teaches at the same school where her children are students, while David farms the homestead and also works on the railroad in Louisiana during a portion of the year.

The book opens with an account of “night men” and references to three black men being burned at the hands of some of their own neighbors. It is clear from this point onward that there is significant racial unrest in the community, and David quickly returns home from the railroad with a friend, Mr. Morrison, who remains behind on the land in order to protect the family in David’s absence.

Mary and David are adamant that their children not visit places in town where they would interact with the men (and sort of men) who were responsible for the burnings, most notably the Wallace store. T.J. Avery, Stacy’s best friend, however, feels no such compunction himself and begins spending an increasing amount of time both at the Wallace store and with the Simms brothers who are notoriously cruel and disrespectful toward black people. Stacy watches as his friend T.J. follows a sharp downward trajectory, which culminates in T.J.’s arrest and some very serious accusations levied against him. In the meantime, however, the Logans have organized a boycott of the Wallace store among the African-American community, which leads to serious trouble for their family in more ways than one.

Among the most powerful scenes in this book are Cassie and Little Man’s personal encounters with serious racial injustice and their struggle to accept the lesser treatment that is so often meted out to them. Jeremy Simms is another notable figure in this book, and a character who is quietly impactful throughout the series.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is best suited for readers ages 10 and up, and makes for an excellent family or classroom read-aloud.

“Let the Circle Be Unbroken”

In Let the Circle Be Unbroken, T.J. must face the consequences of his ill-advised associations with the Simms brothers. Here we see T.J. standing trial, with Mr. Wade Jamison (whom careful readers will also remember from The Land) as his defense attorney. After T.J.’s trial is finished, Stacy steals away from his family in the dead of night to look for work outside of town. The children’s father, David, has been traveling for work in order to meet their expenses, and Stacy is determined to contribute to the family, as well, but knows his parents will not approve of his working on a plantation or in a camp instead of being in school. The family and Mr. Jamison go to extraordinary lengths to search for Stacy and bring him home, but his whereabouts continue to elude them, much to their fear and sorrow.

During this time, Cassie’s cousin, Suzella, comes to stay with the family, with Cassie struggling to accept her presence in the home. Suzella’s presence is further complicated because she has a black father (Mary’s brother) and a white mother, and she not only easily passes for being a young white woman, but she seems to prefer doing so. Cassie in particular does not approve of this decision, while also fearing that the ever-charming Suzella will supplant her.

Finally, Cassie and her mother help one of their elderly neighbors, Mrs. Lee Annie prepare to take a voting test, despite the fact that black people in their area were neither welcomed nor accepted as voters. However, Mrs. Lee Annie is determined to at least attempt the voting test, both on principle and as an example to others, so Mary and Cassie reluctantly agree to help her. In order to prepare, Mrs. Lee Annie essentially memorizes the entire U.S. Constitution, and internalizes its spirit as well as its letter. However, whether or not she is permitted to vote remains to be seen!

Let the Circle Be Unbroken is recommended for readers ages 10 and up, although older readers will certainly still find this book to be highly engaging. However, like all of Mildred Taylor’s books, this is one we recommend reading aloud or in a discussion setting. Parents may also want to read these books ahead of time in order to be prepared for the discussions and questions that these stories may spark.

“The Road to Memphis”

In The Road to Memphis, the final book of the saga, Cassie is away at high school in Jackson, Mississippi, and is looking into applying to colleges. Her particular interest lies in studying law, which she has been reading about both extensively and of her own accord. Her older brother Stacy and their close friend Moe are also living in Jackson, where they work in a factory alongside their friend Little Willie. Although the Logan children have been in dangerous situations before, they are now in the unusual position of protecting the life of their close friend, Moe, who must disappear into the North in order to survive after a terrible encounter he has with Jeremy Simms’ cousins. The fact that the Logans and their friends are more or less on their own between Jackson and Memphis adds to the somber tone of the novel; David and Mary are no longer able to protect their children, and Cassie, Stacy, and their friends must defend themselves as best they can.

I would argue that this particular book is more mature than the others, but not necessarily because its storyline or events are more complicated or painful than those of earlier books. Rather, relationships are given a stronger focus in this book and Cassie herself is conflicted over her relationship with Moe, who seems to feel something more for her than she feels for him, and later conflicted over another man who assists them in Memphis. There is also simply more ambiguity here about the fate of the characters we have grown to love with all our hearts, and that fact alone can be hard to accept. But in all, we see Stacy and Cassie come into their own as the strong man and woman their parents raised them to become.

Like the other two books, The Road to Memphis is recommended for readers ages 10 and up. Please see our comments on the age recommendation for Let the Circle Be Unbroken for further guidance about ages.

A parting word from the author

We quoted Mildred Taylor’s “Note to the Reader” from The Land at the beginning of our post on that book, and in preparing to write this post, I came across an interview she gave to The Brown Bookshelf in 2008. I wanted to include a portion of that interview here, as well, about criticism that Mildred Taylor has garnered in recent years. She speaks to the matter far more eloquently and incisively than we would ever be able to, and it felt appropriate to bookend our posts with her own words.

Recently […] there has been a backlash of parents, minority parents included, and educators who do not want children to read books such as mine. Some of the people who voice these opinions do not like the “n” word being used, because they believe it brings too much pain to a child reading such a word.

But how can readers understand the true history of the past or the need for a civil rights movement unless they have begun to understand the pain of those who suffered through slavery, discrimination, and segregation? How can readers feel the pain if I pretty up the way things were?

What I least like to do is write down words that hurt. I cringe at the thought of any child being hurt by my words, but as much as it hurts me to write words of pain, I know that they must be written, for they are truthful words about the time I write.

They are painful to me to write and they are painful to those who read them, but they are needed for the full understanding of what life was like for African-Americans before the Civil Rights Movement.

I remember what it was like. I remember the pain of what life was like and I want others to recognize that pain in order for all generations to appreciate why there was a Civil Rights Movement and to appreciate the great freedom of rights and opportunities we enjoy today.”

                                            — Mildred D. Taylor. Interview with The Brown Bookshelf, Feb. 2008. Online.

Discussion questions

  • What lesson do the Logan children take from T.J.’s fate? What lesson should they take from it? (Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry)
  • How do the Logan children react to the racism they routinely encounter? How do the Logan children’s responses differ from the responses of their parents and grandparents? Why might their responses be different? (All books, but especially Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry)
  • Why is Mrs. Lee Annie determined to vote? Does her decision to attempt to vote bring good or ill to her community? What – if anything – should she have done differently? (Let the Circle Be Unbroken)
  • How does the onset of W.W. II affect the Logan family and their community? What parallels can be drawn between events in their lives and on the global stage? (The Road to Memphis)
  • Considering the actions and interactions of T.J., Jeremy Simms, Moe, and all of the Logan children, what does it mean to be a good friend in these books? (All books)
  • Why do the Logan children eschew the friendship of Jeremy Simms? Why don’t their refusals deter Jeremy from continuing to seek them out? (All books)
  • What themes of The Land do we see echoed in this trilogy? Are there differences or similarities that surprise you? (All books)

Share your experience!

What about you all? Do you have prior experience with Mildred Taylor’s books, or memories of reading them in the past? What discussions questions would you add to our list? Please share your thoughts and memories with us in a comment below!

Purchase Mildred D. Taylor’s books at Amazon

The Landby Mildred D. Taylor

The Well: David’s Storyby Mildred D. Taylor

Song of the Treesby Mildred D. Taylor

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cryby Mildred D. Taylor

Let the Circle Be Unbrokenby Mildred D. Taylor

The Road to Memphisby Mildred D. Taylor