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Thomas Jefferson's Battle for Science - Perfect Picture Book Friday #PPBF

Beth Anderson's newest nonfiction picture book reveals the necessity of questioning sources of information, the completeness of the data, biases, and opinions in both scientific and general declarations of truth. Using heart and humor. it explores Thomas Jefferson's journey to prove the scientific reality of America and its amazing animals to French scientist Count Georges Louis Leclerc de Buffon.

Book cover - Jefferson holding a ruler behind a cannon hiring images about America into a cloud of smoke.

Thomas Jefferson's Battle for Science: Bias, Truth, and a Mighty Moose!

Author: Beth Anderson

Illustrator: Jeremy Holmes

Publisher: Calkins Creek/Astra Publishing

Ages: 7-10

Nonfiction


Themes:

Science, bias, mistruths, and curiosity.


Synopsis:

Young Thomas Jefferson loved to measure the natural world: plants and animals, mountains and streams, crops and weather. With a notepad in his pocket, he constantly examined, experimented, and explored. He dreamed of making great discoveries like the well-known scientific author, Count Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon.


But when Buffon published an encyclopedia of the natural world, Jefferson was furious! According to the French count, America was cold and swampy, and filled with small and boring animals, nothing like the majestic creatures of the OId World. Jefferson knew Buffon had never even been to America. Where had Buffon gotten his information? Had he cherry-picked the facts to suit his arguments? Was he biased in favor of Europe?


How could Jefferson prove Buffon wrong? By using scientific inquiry, of course! This first picture book to emphasize Jefferson’s use of scientific methods is an accessible and entertaining approach to a lesser-known side of Jefferson.


Opening Lines:

YOUNG THOMAS JEFFERSON


M E A S U R E D H I S WO R L D . . .


animals and plants, mountains and streams, weather and

crops. He recorded sizes and shapes, temperatures and times,

distances and speeds (even his own).

Collecting fossils and bones, he dreamed of massive

mammoths and undiscovered creatures. His heart swelled

as the power and majesty of nature called him to question,

experiment, and explore. Science was his “supreme

delight.” It was certain, peaceful, measurable.


or SO HE BELIEVED


What I LOVED about this book: The text and illustration do such a great job of introducing us to a Young Thomas Jefferson who adores science and nature. I love how it's set against journal graph paper, with scientific identification tags (versions of Jefferson's own notes) and sidebars of fun facts. Jefferson enjoyed reading about science, devouring book after book, until . . . he read French Count Georges Louis Leclerc de Buffon’s 'scientific' declarations about America.

Internal spread - on left a mamoth skull and a brown bear. On right, a slamander, blue Ridge Mountains, a straberry, and Jefferson holding a ruler.

Text © Beth Anderson, 2024. Image © Jeremy Holmes, 2024.

When Buffon declared America to be nothing but a cold swamp filled with puny animals, that couldn't compare to Old World animals, Jefferson's rage ignited.

Internal spread - Jefferson in thought with his head and hair represented by fire. On right, a snake creaeps up to Jefferson an he wonders about Buffon's theories.

Text © Beth Anderson, 2024. Image © Jeremy Holmes, 2024.


Beth Anderson and Jeremy Holmes do a wonderful job of exploring his feeling of bereftness and confusion in discovering that science was not certain or infailible. The comic-like aspect of the illustrations brings a bit of lightness and whimsy to the book. I enjoyed the fun comparison between Jefferson's work in the war against England and his war against Buffon's theories. As he questioned each of Buffon's facts and premises, one question rose to the top, " Where did the scientist get his information if he had never been to America?" I really enjoyed Jeremy Holmes depiction of Jefferson's head exploding with the volume of facts he'd measured and collected as he wrote his own book.

Internal spread - on the left, the U.S. capital, original 13 stars flag, and fireworks. On the right, Thomas Jefferson writing his book and his brain literally explodes from all the facts.

Text © Beth Anderson, 2024. Image © Jeremy Holmes, 2024.


Since much of Jefferson's fight with Buffon's facts involved measurements, I love that yard sticks are intrinsically woven somewhere into most of the illustrations. When the two men finally met in France, instead of volleys of cannonballs and buckshot, Jefferson fired facts and figures at Buffon. Their war of science eventually ended in a stalemate, with Buffon demanding Jefferson provide proof of a MOOSE. Humorously, Jefferson wins the battle, but loses the war (at least temporarily). Excellent back matter explores confirmation bias, the wide-ranging effects of mistruths, unintended consequences of science, and some of the darker aspects of Thomas Jefferson's life. The book wraps intrigue, pendulum swings of emotion, and Jefferson's own reckoning as his beloved science facts undo some of his own strongly held beliefs. It's a marvelous blending of history, biography, heart, and science which will leave readers questioning facts they hear and read.


Resources:

  • Was Buffon right that bigger is better? What animals would Jefferson have found in American that didn't exist in Europe (such as the raccoon and alligator)? Because they were different, did that make them less impressive or more boring than European animals?


  • Using the fun chart of the scientific inquiry process at the end of the book, dive into a question you want to explore or a fact you want to challenge.



If you missed my interview with Beth Anderson on Monday, find it (here).


This post is part of a series by authors and KidLit bloggers called Perfect Picture Book Fridays. For more picture book suggestions and resources see Susanna Leonard Hill's Perfect Picture Books.

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Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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