How Bad Information Invades Kid's Books
Dr. Robert Gale Breene III
Artesia, New Mexico USA

From Forum Vol. 6, No. 6

The ATS is often asked to review children's books and is happy to oblige. The publishers let us see much of the text and we correct the myths and misconceptions along with the downright fallacies that frequently pack the pages of these books. Deadline pressures are apparently the primary driving force behind the publications of these children's books, and this is probably the reason why they have never let us review the final galley proof, or what will be the final product including the photographs. This is where almost all the mistakes are made. Allowing us to correct the final galley proof would eliminate this problem, and would not take more than an extra day or two for completion. Because of this inattention on the part of the publishers at press time, what could have been very good arthropod books are often reduced to marginal work best avoided. These books go out for consumption and end up further misguiding children in the biological sciences, requiring re-education on the subject later on, which most will probably not receive.

Below are three examples of children's books where the ATS editor was listed as the content consultant despite the somewhat poor quality of the end product. Each correction has an explanation of what most likely went haywire during the process.

McAuliffe, E. 1997(1998). Tarantulas.
Capstone Press, Mankato, Minnesota 48 pp.
ISBN 1-56065-621-2

This book is part of a series invented by the publishers called "Dangerous Animals." This immediately discredits the book. Domestic dogs are orders of magnitude more dangerous than tarantulas. Dogs kill many people around the world every year and tarantulas don't kill anyone. The chance of seeing a book about dogs in a dangerous animal book series is nearly nonexistent. A double standard has clearly been used.

Probable cause: Fundamental misunderstanding on the part of the publishers about the subject matter. Sacrifice of reality for potential profit. Likely a repercussion of the icky spider mindset.

Rick West points out that the cover photograph appears to be a very old, faded, dehydrated Brachypelma smithi with an arched unnatural positioning to the legs and sunken chelicerae. This would indicate a spider that has been dead for some time.

Probable cause: Very strange taste in photographs on the part of the publisher, especially since they had a wonderful assortment of live tarantulas to choose from.

In the opening "Fast Facts about tarantulas," on page 4, the legspan of tarantulas is said to be 30 to 390 centimeters. As Rick West pointed out, this means from about a foot to over 12 feet, and he wants one. They meant millimeters.

Probable cause: Consultant was not shown the final galley proof.

Also on page 4 "Tropical means hot and rainy." There are tropical rain forests, dry tropical forests, and a host of other tropical ecosystems.

Probable cause: Fundamental misunderstanding of ecology. Consultant not shown the final galley proof.

On page 5 "Larger tarantulas eat mice, lizards, and frogs." This could have been corrected with the word "may" before "eat." It directly implies this is what all larger tarantulas eat -- a total distortion.

Probable cause: Consultant ignored, not shown the final galley proof.

Also on page 5 is a range map of North America. An area of Louisiana east of the Mississippi River was incorrectly shown as inhabited by tarantulas, and larger Caribbean Islands, such as Cuba, Haiti/Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico were incorrectly shown as not inhabited.

Probable cause: Consultant was not shown final galley proofs.

On page 7 "Some tarantula species are among the largest spiders in the world." Since the word "some" is there, "among" should not be.

Probable cause: Consultant ignored, a popular Golden Guide book on spiders and their kin was again misinterpreted.

Page 11 "Tropical means hot and rainy." See above. They also made the same mistake with the 12 foot long spiders. This shows they can make the same mistakes over and over again with accuracy.

Page 15 "A tarantula has eight eyes that are located just above its mouth." I suppose this would be true in cross section, behind the chelicerae at the front of the carapace would be less confusing.

Probable cause: Consultant was not shown final galley proof.

Again on page 15 "During the day, a tarantula can only see about three feet (90 centimeters)." This statement is so broad and without evidence, it does not contain meaning.

Probable cause: Consultant ignored.

Page 17 "Tarantulas move into the sun if they become too cold." Huh? This may be so but there is no evidence.

Probable cause: Consultant was not shown final galley proof.

Page 18 "Many spiders live in webs made of silk. Tarantulas do not." Tarantula keepers familiar with many arboreal and some opportunist burrowers would take issue with this, and rightly so. Some arboreals may have very ugly retreats they often inhabit, but they are still webs made of silk. Blanket statements like this are almost always highly misleading.

Probable cause: Consultant ignored.

More statements pulled out of the blue include L-shaped burrows of a particular length and comments about a den, which I asked them to remove. Other statements make further claims about eyesight and prey, which I also asked them to remove.

Probable cause: Consultant ignored.

On page 22 "Tarantulas in Africa and Asia are fierce. They bite when they sense danger." Comments with no scientific basis like this only lead to further misunderstanding, or even to irrational fear of certain species in some children.

Probable cause: Consultant ignored.

On page 30, the photo depicting a tarantula eggsac looks nothing like any I've seen. Rick West believes it to be a dissected book lung, and I agree.

Probable cause: Consultant not shown final galley proof.

Page 31 states "A female guards her eggsac for six weeks." This is another arbitrary blanket statement that should have a qualifier attached.

Probable cause: Consultant not shown final galley proof.

The photo caption and first sentence on page 33 proclaims that "Spiderlings are small and weak." Compared to what?

Probable cause: Consultant not shown final galley proof.

Some addresses and Internet sites were listed in the back of the book. As if on cue, both physical and Internet addresses for the ATS were the wrong ones.

Probable cause: Three guesses, the first two don't count.

McAuliffe, B. 1997(1998). Black widow spiders.
Capstone Press, Mankato, Minnesota 48 pp.
ISBN 1-56065-619-0

The title beats much potential credibility out of this book from the get-go. Black widow is not a common name. Widow spiders contain the species in the genus Latrodectus. They do mention this later on, however. In the US, there are three widow spiders that are mostly black, one that's mostly brown, and one that's largely red. They mention some of this also, but continual references to black widows makes it confusing.

Probable cause: Consultant ignored in favor of the icky spider mindset for the title.

Page 7 "Most of the time, the venom kills the victim." This is sensationalism. I'm glad they think they know more about this subject than arachnologists. We don't have much evidence whether most victims are killed or simply paralyzed.

Probable cause: Consultant not shown the final galley proof.

Page 8 "In the past, one out of every 25 people bitten by black widows died." Since many or most people bitten, currently or in the past, didn't know what bit them to begin with, this statement is silly. There's no way a percentage like this could be worked out. This is pure, wild guessing on the part of the author or someone he talked to.

Probable cause: Consultant ignored.

On page 13, the coloration of immatures, male, and female widows, which varies greatly with species and individuals, is oversimplified.

Probable cause: Consultant ignored.

On page 17, a box sidebar proclaims widows can make two kinds of silk; that number is actually higher. It goes on to say that one kind of widow silk is four times stronger than that of any other spider, and that it is as strong as Kevlar. If there's any evidence for any of this, which there can't be, since nowhere near all 36,000 known species of spiders' web has been tested, I've never seen it. More wild speculation.

Probable cause: Consultant ignored.

On page 25 under "Enemies" they list mantids, and show a staged photo of a mantid eating a female widow. The chance of a mantid getting through the web to get to a female widow is slim to none. This silly type of thing can get into the literature and be nearly impossible to get back out again.

Probable cause: Consultant not shown the final galley proof.

Page 30 "Scientists believe that females put pheromones on their webs." The word "believe" should be "suspect." This same type of thing riddles the book, making scientists look bad to those not understanding what's causing the author to make these statements.

Probable cause: Consultant misunderstood, not shown the final galley proof.

On pages 38-39 "In the 1960's, entomologists changed the genus name black widow." Try the 1980's, and we changed the common name for the genus, not the genus name, and we're arachnologists, yikes!

Probable cause: Consultant misunderstood, not shown final galley proof.

It became quickly transparent that the two authors above knew next to nothing about the subject matter, nor were they or the publisher very interesting in learning any more on the subject. Collectively, they cranked out what they considered good enough for kids, and have by now probably forgotten about the whole thing. The authors are doubtless placing words together on who knows what other subject to sell to kids. Personally, I respect children more than that. I had thought these books were intended to educate. Oh well, silly me.

Holmes, K. J. 1997(1998). Spiders.
Capstone Press, Mankato, Minnesota 24 pp.
ISBN 1-56065-605-0

The only unsubstantiated "fact" in the book was a statement on page 15 saying that jumping spiders can jump 50 times their own body length. Some may, most may not, some may be able to jump further. My problem; this is precisely the type of claim that gets into the popular literature and becomes widely perceived as written in stone, which it is not.

Probable cause: Consultant's questioning of where they got that "fact" and accompanying statement that it's much too broad to be in the book was overlooked or ignored.

Although not a terribly serious oversight, on page 17 the author explains only the method spiders use to consume prey that leaves an intact, empty husk behind. They didn't mention the other method widely used by spiders such as tarantulas and some wolf spiders and others of tearing the prey into small pieces and sucking the nutrients off the bolas mass.

Probable cause: Limited space considerations.

The big mistake that almost sinks the book is the photo on the front cover. The book is on spiders. There is no mention of other arachnids. The cover photo depicts a harvestmen, order Opiliones. This is not a spider, which are members of order Araneae. There are nine other arachnid orders. There is no difference between this and selling a book on dogs with a photograph of a bear on the cover. They are both mammals belonging to different orders. Spiders and harvestmen are both arachnids but are very different orders of animals.

Probable cause: Consultant was not shown the final galley proof.

Otherwise, I consider this book very good for the young children target audience for which it was intended. Only the cover photograph damages the overall value of the book.

The best thing that can be said about these books is that the publisher had the interest and took at least part of the time required to find an organization or someone that actually knows something about the subject material being covered. Again, the most critical error occurs when publishers do not show the consultant the final galley proof. Most children's book publishers do not even make the effort to find consultants knowledgeable on the subject matter, or are duped by self-proclaimed expert wannabes. Their failure in this case to fully utilize a reliable and free resource is dumbfounding.

This is also the case in television documentaries. Some National Geographic and Discovery Channel programs are so misleading when it comes to arthropods, I've called them the equivalent of the National Enquirer or worse of TV.

The disturbing message here is that all of these errors would have been extremely easy to fix, especially since they already had a qualified consultant on call.

Copyright 1997, The American Tarantula Society ©
All Rights Reserved