I Am Jane Goodall, by Brad Meltzer, illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos
This book demonstrates at least some of the qualities of a good hagiography in that the subject of the book gave it an approving blurb. It is always worthwhile on at least some level when the subject of a book approves what is said in it. That said, I do not think that biographies, even those meant for children, should be hagiographies. I do not think it appropriate to write hit pieces that are meant to destroy positive feeling towards people either, but there is something to be said for presenting people in all their complexity and letting children come up to their own opinions. There are far too many saints’ tales and villain tales and most people are neither, at least neither entirely. Most people who are considered as heroes have some sort of dark side to their lives and behavior, and most people who are reviled in history have at least some way of making a positive case for themselves and their ideals, and we as human beings have to pick through the justifications and accusations and figure out what matters more, if we wish to engage in that task at all. We could simply leave it up to God, as it were.
Anyway, this particular book tells the story of someone who is easy to relate to and easy to sympathize with, namely Jane Goodall, whose care and concern for chimps helped the world see their individuality and sense of community in their natural environment. We may say, although the book does not use the language, that Jane Goodall was particularly gifted in naturalistic observation and in drawing appropriate conclusions from those, and the fact that the book focuses on her efforts and investigations and generosity of spirit is genuinely appealing. If the book is not perfect (more on that below), the author at least understands and wants to convey what is worthwhile about Jane Goodall, and that is her kindness towards animals and her willingness to see them for what they are, rather than see them only through prejudiced eyes. If chimpanzees are not human, they are at least very intelligent animals with personalities and a high degree of creativity and worth as animals. They are worthy of respect and interest, and this book certainly encourages readers to give both to the animals that Goodall spent so long studying in their native habitats.
Although this book is very good, it is not perfect. Again, as is generally the case, the question is one of framing. As already mentioned, part of this framing is my dislike of hagiography as a whole as being the proper model for writing biographies aimed at children. Why should we disappoint children by telling them to believe in heroes and then, when they are older, spending so much time and effort in debunking their heroism by pointing out their flaws. It is better for children to wrestle with flaws and complexities while preserving a sense of idealism, so that people can see what is good and recognize that we all have feet of clay in at least some aspects of our lives. In addition to this, the author presents Goodall as being unqualified for her research work but having benefited from a certain degree of favoritism from a well-established researcher in primate studies in Africa. While the author presents this sort of favor as being an unmixed blessing, it is easy to see that others may disagree and see Goodall’s work as less valuable and less reliable for her lacking the sort of credentials that give one respect in the scientific community. That said, this book should encourage those who enjoy research but do not enjoy endless years of study. We can gain a great deal of insight by looking at people or animals or even plants in their natural habitat and being willing to engage in what we see and observe with an attitude of warmth and friendliness.