Explorabook and Earthsearch: 1990s Kids’ Science Books as Vectors of Ideology
CN: discusses racism, genocide, ableism, sexism, and cis-sexist gender binaries
All ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects, by the functioning of the category of the subject. … ideology ‘acts’ or ‘functions’ in such a way that it ‘recruits’ subjects among the individuals (it recruits them all), or ‘transforms’ the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very precise operation which I have called interpellation or hailing, and which can be imagined along the lines of the most commonplace everyday police (or other) hailing: ‘Hey, you there!’
— Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” 1970
When I was around eight years old in 1997, I owned two kids’ science books that fascinated and disturbed me: Explorabook: A Kid’s Science Museum in a Book and its follow-up: Earthsearch: A Kids’ Geography Museum in a Book. Both are by John Cassidy. Explorabook is in conjunction with the Exploratorium, a museum in San Francisco. As a white child who loved school and had educated parents, I was exactly the target audience for this book. As a disabled child, I was not. Both books compelled me in the same way trips to art and science museums did. However, what disturbed me, and what I couldn’t possibly articulate, was the ideology inherent in the books. I can only unravel it now, as an adult familiar with critical theory.
I’ve previously Tweeted about the bizarre, sexist, ableist, racist, Eurocentric, gender essentialist stereotypes in these “fun” kids’ science books I loved in the ’90s. I remember them pushing the overpopulation myth, stigmatizing mental illness, and using an old riddle about a female surgeon, which is only confusing if you can’t imagine a woman surgeon! I don’t have the books anymore, so for years, I assumed I couldn’t write about them. The books were never digitized, but from my vivid memories of them and the few photos and excerpts available online, I hope my impression of these books is still clear for the purposes of this post. The books are great examples of passing down ideological biases to kids, often unintentionally, and under the guise of scientific facts.
I love science, but the danger in its unexamined ideology is that it’s easy to misconstrue anything labelled “scientific” as “objective truth.” Even as it deals with facts, the study of science is as rife with ideological bias as any other field. I searched online and could find very little about these books. A few very expensive, used copies are available on Amazon and eBay. Like me, many customers feel nostalgic towards these books. I found nothing about their ableism, racism, or sexism. In fact, some reviewers think these books have a liberal bias. Arguably, that’s true, but in a very ’90s way that doesn’t hold up today. The myths about “overpopulation” that Earthsearch repeats uncritically exemplify some of the worst, most racist tendencies of neoliberalism.
A children’s fiction series that horrified me around the same age was Todd Strasser’s Help! I’m Trapped… series. I’ve analyzed its ableism using Sigmund Freud’s The Uncanny and Julia Kristeva on abjection.
Image description: A copy of a spiral-bound book with a magnet attached. Title in bold, red letters: “Explorabook: A Kid’s Science Museum in a Book.” In smaller type: “John Cassidy, The Exploratorium.” There’s a movable Moiré spinner, a black and white photo of Albert Einstein, and an astronaut. Multicolored tabs on the right side mark sections by topic.
Image description: A copy of a spiral-bound book titled Earthsearch: A Kids’ Geography Museum in a Book by John Cassidy, author of the Explorabook. The title contains a photo of Earth. Other illustrations include a black and white photo of a 19th century, male, British explorer, looking through binoculars. A movable map of Earth’s South Pole is captioned “Spin this Planet the Right Way.” The metal background is painted silver, and tabs on the right mark topics.
Being the target reader and age, I found many activities in books like these fun or funny. Many seemed baffling, though, even then. One “science” book I owned [by the same authors and same publisher, Klutz; I’m unsure of the title] suggested holding one’s tongue with one’s fingers and trying to pronounce “fairy dust and cans of spam.” This is impossible, but the upshot is laughing at speech differences. In a bizarre bit of biological gender essentialism, it says that girls always stretch out their fingers when asked to look at their fingernails, while boys form fists. This is obviously absurd, but I remember kids mocking each other for not fitting equally arbitrary gender stereotypes. My parents would also be horrified when I recited these nonsensical “science facts” to them.
I loved the sections in Explorabook on optical illusions. This is partly because I have OCD, cerebral palsy, and myopia, so I literally see things differently. Many of the optical illusions involved edited photos of people with their facial features distorted or flipped upside-down. These horrified me, although I didn’t understand why. Now that I understand more about ableism and facial differences, I realize that the books were teaching us to find people with “abnormal, wrong” facial features “scary.” Similarly, I wrote about Freud’s The Uncanny illuminating my childhood experiences on Book Riot and here on Medium.
I remember Earthsearch really pushing the genocidal “overpopulation” myth and depicting Africa as monolithic. One chapter began with a black and white photo of an African girl in traditional clothes. The caption said something like: “By the time this child reaches adulthood, she may as well be living on a continent called AfricaAfrica….[after saying the word Africa a total of 16 times]…That’s 16 Africas!” The book then said the child’s home would be unrecognizable to her, due to the imminent population boom.
This is like Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, but for ’90s elementary school children. It’s a pernicious, two-pronged message (and possibly unconscious on the author’s part):
1) It shows the target audience, many being white US kids with educated parents, like me, a picture of an African child, to whom we relate. 2) It weaponizes our identification with her by saying that “overpopulation” will make her life difficult. This was back when terms like “third world” were still widely used. Of course, it doesn’t say the girl or her loved ones should die or should never have been born. I would have rejected that outright. However, this is the insidious implication of “overpopulation” rhetoric, suggesting that there are (or soon will be) “too many people.”
This 2004 Washington Post review mentions the “two packets of cookable rice” included with the book as one of its fun, hands-on activities. But it does not explain what they were meant to represent.
This 2006 customer review uncritically explains the ideological agenda behind the rice packets. “We paced out the solar system to scale on a beach with the sun as a soccer ball, stacked as many pennies as we could find in the house to take a look at population growth, etc. It was a most delightful learning experience! We cooked up the small amount of rice that a child in Africa would be given to eat in a day, and wondered soberly how they can survive. When I saw my 10-year-old’s face truly acknowledge how fortunate he is to live in the U.S. under a large roof with more than three meals a day, that was worth ten times what I paid for this book.” (Bold emphasis mine.)
There’s a lot of ideology to unpack here. I was too young to understand genocide, colonialism, capitalism, or their intersections. The parent who wrote this review in 2006 didn’t seem to acknowledge the agenda here, either. They don’t question who is “giving” the children the tiny amount of rice, how, why, or even if this is true. Without an understanding of the humanities, presenting an activity like this to demonstrate a “scientific fact” is dangerous. There’s no mention of rich countries in the Global North colonizing and exploiting the Global South, forcing these countries into poverty and war. This is presented as simply the way the world works.
There’s not even a suggestion for us in the US to use or waste fewer resources. Instead, the family in the review absorbed the book’s white saviorism, which encouraged Americans to pity African kids and to consider themselves comparatively lucky to have been born in the US!
To return to the Althusser quote with which I opened the essay, I often use it to explain indoctrination. When we are interpellated into an ideology, as Althusser says, we identify with it, applying it to ourselves. The customer review, reflecting the book’s perspective on Africa, is a great example of interpellation.
I do want to credit Cassidy for trying to teach kids about unconscious biases, which most kids’ science books in the ’90s did not even attempt. However, his illustration of unconscious bias in Explorabook was itself outdated and sexist. He uses an old “riddle” about a father and son in a car accident. The punch line is the surgeon saying: “I can’t operate on this boy. He’s my son!” This riddle only works if you expect all doctors to be men and is only confusing if you can’t imagine a woman surgeon! I remember overanalyzing this as a child, wondering what was supposed to seem wrong or catch me up here.
The book explicates: “Most surgeons are men, so your brain takes a shortcut. It hears the word ‘surgeon’ and says to itself ‘male.’ Say the word ‘nurse’ and your brain barely wakes up enough to say ‘female.’ The word for this kind of thing isn’t just ‘mental shortcut.’ It’s more like ‘bias’ or ‘prejudice.’ Some people get such a bad case of it that they start saying things like ‘Surgeons ought to be men,’ or ‘Nurses ought to be women.’ That kind of thinking can lead to real problems. But now that you know where it comes from, you can take some active steps to prevent it. Just give your brain a real wake up call whenever you suspect it might be taking one of these lazy shortcuts that it shouldn’t.”
I’d heard people my grandparents’ age assuming doctors were men and nurses were women. But the idea wouldn’t have occurred to me unless the book used that example. Once again, the author’s good intentions lack a humanities perspective. It’s commendable to teach kids about cognitive biases and avoiding assumptions, but the societal aspect is missing. People might assume doctors are men because this was what they were taught or observed as kids themselves. With undiagnosed OCD, I often noticed irrational thoughts and internalized biases but blamed myself for thinking the “wrong” things.
Later, the book tries to explain sensory processing disorders. Many neurodivergent people experience sensory issues, and I’d never read a description of them before: “From your brain’s point of view, life is a staggering blast of completely disorganized stuff. Impressions, feelings, images, smells, etc., are being fire-hosed into your brain through your eyes, ears, nose, and skin every waking hour. It’s confusing, never-ending, and hopelessly chaotic.”
Again, I give Cassidy credit for explaining this before most kids’ books did. I’ve found the quote above plagiarized verbatim, without any attribution, into two recent resources for teaching autistic students: in this book from 2015 and this 2017 blog post.
The same section of Cassidy’s book continues: “If your brain did not ‘edit’ the input like this, or organize the rest into familiar patterns, you would undoubtedly be paralyzed by the onslaught. In fact, psychologists believe that some forms of mental illness stem from faulty organizational ‘wiring.’ The patient experiences ‘too much’ and as a result, fails to put it into patterns.”
The illustration here is a drawing of a spiral, but off-kilter and asymmetrical, symbolizing mental illness. Ableism was not widely known as a form of oppression back then, but the illustration suggests that mental illness is inferior, scary, and abnormal. Again, the book hasn’t been digitized, and I read it almost 25 years ago. I think after the spiral representing “faulty wiring,” it explains that ableist hand gesture of circles near the ear to suggest “crazy” — as if it’s universal and justified!
I remember reading in Explorabook that the last two bottles of smallpox were in a top-secret lab under round-the-clock supervision. So, at under ten years old, I could imagine biological warfare. I had already seen examples of it on the news. But ironically, I couldn’t imagine anti-vaxxers. This shows just how quickly these books aged, in every way.
I understand and even share other readers’ nostalgia for both Explorabook and Earthsearch. However, I don’t think they should be passed down to kids who can’t yet unpack all the ideological biases and outdated facts.
When ideology is packaged alongside scientific facts, it’s easy to accept it as “neutral” or “objective” truth. Science, like any other discipline, is subject to the prejudices and politics of its time. It’s never devoid of ideology. This is especially true when STEM is prioritized over the humanities. In fact, I needed my education in the humanities as an adult to articulate the biases I absorbed from science books like these as a child.
This is particularly evident in Earthsearch. It’s ostensibly about geography, but facts about Earth science without analyses of history or politics are really geology, not geography. Without diverse, historical perspectives, Earthsearch’s scientific “facts” quickly become neoliberal propaganda about “population control.”
Cassidy, John. Earthsearch: A Kids’ Geography Museum in a Book. Palo Alto, CA: Klutz Press, 1994.
Cassidy, John. Explorabook: A Kid’s Science Museum in a Book. Palo Alto, CA: Klutz Press, 1991. (Reprinted in 2009.)