Wednesday, 1 March 2017

PRINCE RIBBIT – a perfectly-timed picture book for the post-truth era?

The cover of Peachtree's US edition.
Prince Ribbit, my latest picture book with illustrator Poly Bernatene has just been published in the US by Peachtree Publishers and has already picked up some good reviews.

It’s the story of a cunning frog who tricks his way into a royal household by convincing two fairytale-obsessed princesses that he's really an enchanted prince who can give them the happily-ever-after they have always dreamed of. Fortunately the two princesses have a non-fiction-loving younger sister, Martha, who sees through the frog’s fakery and sets out to debunk it. The characters use books to back up their arguments, and both sides dismiss each other’s evidence with the refrain, “Just because it’s in a book doesn’t mean it’s true!”.

Some US reviewers have commented that the book’s theme of fact versus fiction – and how to tell the difference between the two is especially relevant at a time when “fake news” is having an increasing influence on public opinion.

While one book is sufficient proof for big sister Arabella, Martha delves deeper in search of the truth.

The January 2017 edition of the School
Library Journal stressed the need for
young readers to think critically.
The lead article in January’s edition of the School Library Journal stressed the need for educators to teach their students to think critically about information they receive, whether it comes from a book, a newspaper or a website. Reviewer Elizabeth Bird makes a similar point at the beginning of her detailed dissection of Prince Ribbit in the same edition.

“Children in the 21st century have to be taught to use their brains when they read. High school curriculum spend a fair amount of time drilling this idea home, but considering how young kids are when they search for information online these days, wouldn’t it behoove them to be taught to think things through from the start? Enter Prince Ribbit, a book that drills home a very simple message: “Just because it’s in a book doesn’t mean it’s true.” Its timing could not be better.”

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Prince Ribbit’s fact versus fiction theme was inspired by some of the “popular science” books I was reading when I wrote the story in 2013. The laws of libel do not apply to science, so it’s worth bearing in mind that the authors of such books are free to misrepresent scientific evidence in order to appeal to a wider market. This was clearly the case with some of the books I was reading, which gave contradictory accounts of the same evidence. They could not all be right, so how could I find out which books' accounts were closest to the truth?

"Enter Prince Ribbit, a book that drills home a very simple message: 'Just because it’s in a book doesn’t mean it’s true.'
Its timing could not be better."

Elizabeth Bird
School Library Journal
The answer was to delve deeper into the evidence and examine it critically using the methods advocated by campaigns like Ask For Evidence. After doing so I had a clear idea of which books I could rely on and which books I could not.

Although the Ask for Evidence campaign has its roots in the scientific community, the critical thinking approach it promotes is equally applicable to other areas including politics, where policy makers often allow ideology – or just old-fashioned prejudice – to trump the evidence. Fortunately there are organisations that encourage evidence based policy making, such as the Education Endowment Foundationwhich does a great job of objectively evaluating evidence relating to education policy. The next time you hear a politician claiming that 'smart school uniforms lead to academic success' or that 'performance related pay will raise teaching standards,' a quick look at the EEF's easy to use ’toolkit” will allow you to assess the current evidence (or lack of it) for such claims.

When I wrote Prince Ribbit four years ago, I had no idea that the story might have a topical relevance by the time it was published. And I did not have a message in mind when I was writing it – I was simply trying to write an entertaining tale. But I’m delighted that it’s seen as promoting critical thinking. With this in mind, I’ll leave the last word to Elizabeth Laird's SLJ review.

“Read carefully. Read critically. Read everything and then form your own opinion from the facts, as best as you can gather them. Or, if you just prefer, read this cute book because it has princesses and talking frogs in it. As far as I can tell, that’s a win-win situation.”

Princess Martha remains unconvinced by the frog's fakery.

Find out more about Prince Ribbit on my web site

Buy at amazon US Buy this book at amazon UK

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