“In the right context, a casual remark by a teacher, or even a raised eyebrow or tone of voice,” admonished Sir Ken Robinson when speaking about education’s role, “can set you on a lifelong journey of discovery or put you off taking even the first step.” A child’s curiosity reveals the fascinating power within our mind; our deep need to ask questions and attain answers. Imagine if such an ability wasn’t readily available? As we get older, we seemingly ask less questions like, “How did you do that?” or best of them all, “How do you know?”
Gemma Elwin Harris — the editor of this both hilarious and brilliant anthology — gathered thousands of questions from children of ages four to twelve. Questions like, “Why is space so sparkly?” and “Is it safe to eat worms?” are answered by some of the most brilliant minds of our time. As I was reading through, I became a kid again, because frankly many of the questions asked I was unable to answer. I pictured myself facing a young boy or girl, genuinely asking me why there is such a thing as thunderstorms, and my own inability to provide an answer simple enough for a 5-year-old to understand.
Reading Big Questions From Little People and Simple Answers From Brilliant Minds by Gemma Elwin Harris was a journey back into my childhood — questions I may have asked but have forgotten the answer, or questions I never asked, maybe because I was scared. What I ultimately love about this book is how the responder always provides empowering words. How we speak to children (or really anyone for this matter) determines whether they adventure forth or not. Punishing or shaming them — such as a harsh tone or an raised eyebrow — can indeed set them off in a way where they become afraid to do the very thing that makes us human: ask questions.
Below, I’ll share three of my favorites.
One curious mind asked, Is it okay to eat worms? This response is by the notorious man of survival: Bear Grylls. [emphasis by me]
“Well, here’s the thing … If your life depends on it, then you bet it is OK to eat a worm. But you don’t want to be doing it every day, trust me. And if you do eat one, you’ve got to be careful because worms can have some bad stuff in their tums (as they wiggle around all day underground!) So it’s best to cook them up. I find if you boil them up with some pine needles over a fire, it makes them taste a little better. I will never forget the first worm I ate. I was standing there, incredulous, watching this solder suck a long, juicy worm up between his teeth and munch it down raw. I was almost sick. When it was my turn, I think I was sick. But guess what? If you do it enough and you are hungry enough, then it gets easier. And there is a real secret of life and survival: if your spirit is strong enough, you will find a way to do the impossible. That’s the lesson of the worm. Oh, and remember: keep smiling even when it’s raining. That’s the second-most important lesson. So get out there and explore!”
The lesson of the worm, indeed, is a pattern in successful men and women — people who did the impossible because their spirit to win prevailed.
The question, “How long would it take to walk around the world?” is another favorite. The response is by Rosie Swale-Pope, someone who ran around the world:
“I don’t know how long it would take to walk around the world but it took me 1,789 days to run. I wore out fifty-three pairs of shoes! I started the run for charity after my husband died, and I am so glad I did. It was amazing. I found out so much about people, and animals, and forests — and about myself. One of my most unforgettable experiences was meeting a wolf pack in the forest of Siberia. Siberia is the loneliest place on earth. It’s a winter fairyland of beauty and extreme cold. I was in my tent at night when SUDDENLY I heard a noise. Moments later, a wolf put his head right inside the tent. Great furry paws stretching out in front of his nose, snow melting on his fur so it looked like he was wearing diamonds. Then he just back away and was gone. The wolf pack followed me at a distance for ten days, but never came close and didn’t harm me. I remembered that wolves often look after people.[…]At last I made it. All the way around the world. There are two footprints carved into the flagstones of my home in Tenby, Wales. My first step and my last step. There were twenty thousand miles in between. Thank you for your great question. If you have a dream, whatever it is, GO FOR IT!! I wish you all the good luck in the world!”
“Your question has got me scratching my head and thinking all sorts of bizarre thoughts. Well, the Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates famously said ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’. In other words, keep your brain switched on and always ask questions of the world — don’t just accept things as they are. So thank you for encouraging me to puzzle this over.[…]Aristotle himself was taught by Plato, another great thinker. Plato once said of the greeks, ‘We live like frogs around a pond’, because for the Greeks much of life — fighting, shopping, exchanging ideas — involved traveling across the Mediterranean sea. Aristophanes, a playwright from Athens, had a great success with his comedy called Frogs (written in 405 BC). And one of Aesop’s fables, called ‘The Boys and The Frogs’, is about some mean boys throwing stones at frogs in a pond, meaning that what we do in fun often causes trouble for others.
So obviously these men in Ancient Greece actually spent a great deal of time thinking about frogs and talking about them. Why should Alexander be any different? Alexander loved Homer (he slept with a dagger and a copy of Homer’s book the Iliad under his pillow). So there’s the strong possibility he might also have been aware of the comic epic Batrachomyomacia, ‘The Battle of Frogs and Mice’, which some people thought was by Homer. And there’s no doubt Alexander’s experience of frogs would have extended beyond just reading about them. If you spend time in the Mediterranean away from the sounds of the twenty-first century (cars, trains, planes, mobile phones) and walk through the countryside, frogs make their presence felt in no uncertain terms, croaking and singing away in chorus. It can be like a frog opera out there. Thank you for your question — I’ll never think of Alexander in quite the same way again.”
Big Questions From Little People and Simple Answers From Brilliant Minds is a fun, insightful and funny read. From Noam Chomsky, Carl Zimmer, Bear Grylls, Mary Roach, Richard Dawkins and many more, answers these children’s questions in a simple, empowering, and informative way. If you have kids, or aspire to, this is a must-read. And if not, you should read it anyway, because you probably can’t explain to me why the sky is blue.