In the mid-1960’s, Asimov was approached by Ginn and Company, a subsidiary of Xerox that publishes school textbooks. They wanted him to participate in the production of a new line of science texts for fourth through eighth grades. He agreed to go along, a decision he later regretted. The work was long and since it involved working in a fashion such that school boards would be willing to adopt the result—well, it wasn’t easy. (There was even a brief flap over whether or not they would be allowed to use the word “evolution,” a problem that’s yet to go away. Eventually Ginn capitulated to critics and Asimov demanded his name be removed from the series.) The resulting books did not do well, certainly not nearly enough to justify Asimov’s efforts in his eyes.

The five Ginn science books are amongst the rarest of Asimov volumes. Not only were they never sold commercially, not only did they not show up on public library shelves, but they are also not the sort of book that most used book stores carry. The result is that I myself own only three of them. Indeed, until I visited the Asimov archive at Boston University, I hadn’t ever even been able to see a copy of any of the five. They do appear occasionally via online used-book servics or eBay. This, as it happens, is the volume which most often appears—I have managed to acquire four copies and would be glad to swap one for a copy of one of the volumes I don’t have yet. The entire set was once available for $1500 and was snatched up almost instantly.

Asimov was a part of a large team in the production of the books which included one other author, Roy A. Gallant. Asimov in his autobiography speaks highly of Gallant as a writer, and the texts bear his judgment out. Each book consists of some three hundred pages and eight sections. Asimov and Gallant each wrote about half of each volume and one or the other wrote the introductions. Each volume has a quote on the cover from a famous scientist which is the book’s “theme” in a broad sense. The books have occasional pages entitled “A Scientist Speaks” from another member of the editorial staff trying to boost motivation on the part of the students. Experiments are described for the students to use to learn, as well as occasional sections intended to provoke general thinking on the part of the student.

The books are also definitely a part of the early 1970’s. The illustrations in particular are of a style very typical of the time, and there is a strong “green” sense of pro-environmentalism. This is a theme dear to Asimov’s heart and may have been one of the few appealing aspects of the books.

I’ve only read three of the series. This is one. It’s intended for the fourth grade. It consists of the following sections, with the ones written by Gallant marked with a (G).

  • Investigating Motion
  • What Can You Find Out About Stems? (G)
  • How Do You Move and Breathe?
  • Making a Model of the Solar System (G)
  • Particles—The Substance of All Things (G)
  • Exploring the World of Rocks (G)
  • How Do Living Things Grow and Reproduce?
  • The Differences of Life

The quote on the cover is is “Chance favors the prepared mind” by Louis Pasteur, and Asimov wrote the introduction.

The book on a whole is a bit disappointing. I’m not sure I’d want my fourth grader using it. The text is good but it seems somehow disorganized. It isn’t tied together well into distinct sections; looking at a particular page you cannot tell what sort of section it belongs to or how it relates to the rest of the text. The illustrations are very 1970’s and unimpressive. One particular peculiarity is how easy it is to see re-set sections of the text. The books were typeset and then field-tested; revisions were made as a result of the field tests. The distinction between the pre-field test sections and their post-field test replacements is a little too easy to see. Perhaps I’m unusually sensitive to typographic issues like that; perhaps not. I took it, however, as a sign of an unnecessarily cut corner.

The most fanatical of Asimov fans could not die contented until they own a copy of all five Ginn science books. They aren’t bad representatives of Asimov’s writing and are genuinely informative—but this one, at least, would not be really adequate as a textbook.

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