Friday, March 8, 2013

Big Questions from Little People ... and Simple Answers from Great Minds compiled by Gemma Elwin Harris

Thousands of children between the ages of four and twelve were invited to send in the questions they most wanted answered. According to compiler Gemma Elwin Harris, Big Questions from Little People is "an anthology of voices, a personal response from each expert to a child's idiosyncratic question." The result is utterly charming as well as informative.

None of the responses take more than a page or two, no matter how tricky the question: How do you make electricity? Why is water wet? (I learned that if you want to get wet, you need at least six molecules of water.) What are we made of? (Stardust.) How does an aeroplane* fly? I was impressed by the thoughtfulness of answers to quirky questions like "Did Alexander the Great like frogs?"

Meg Rosoff is one of three different Big People answering the most frequently-asked question -- Who is god? Jeanette Winterson provides one of three answers to How do you fall in love?

Mary Roach tackles the question "If a cow didn't fart for a whole year and then did one big fart, would it fly into space?" Actually, cows don't fart, they burp. "But instead of belching it straight up from her stomach -- which would be noisy and might give away the animal's hiding place to a predator -- she can shift things around and reroute the gas down into her lungs and then quietly breathe it out. Very dainty."

Many questions spark interesting additional information. Yes, a bee can sting another bee, but Dr. George McGavin provides more. Bumble bees usually bite intruder bees to drive them out instead of stinging them. In Sally Magnusson's answer to "Why is wee yellow?" I learned that "The ammonia in wee means it can also clean just about anything. The Romans washed their togas in it and until recently weavers used it to clean cloth. People in Britain used to be able to sell theirs for a penny a bucket. Don't get your hopes up today, though!"

A book for all ages that would make a great family read-aloud.

*British spelling and terminology from the original British Faber and Faber edition was maintained in the American HarperCollins edition. i.e. oestrogen, crisps, a 2p coin dropped in a fizzy drink.

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