Introducing kids to Epi Dermis


Introducing kids to Epi Dermis

IHETTE SENEKAL discusses a book that teaches children in a fun, interactive way that colour is only skin deep.


MEET Epi Dermis, the friendly narrator in Holly McGee and Nina Jablonski's children's book, It's Just Skin, Silly! If I were to guess, I would say Epi Dermis is non-binary and Epi's pronoun is they. Epi sometimes feels a bit sensitive because people always have something to say about them, but never ask how they feel. Epi asks the reader if they would be willing to help tell other people the truth about skin. It's a question to which my five-year-old daughter loudly replies, “Yes!"

In the foreword, Henry Louis Gates of Harvard University calls this book “an irresistibly beautiful, pitch-perfect, brilliantly crafted page-turner that explains why skin comes in different colours, and why our very own beautiful shade — whatever shade that might be — makes us splendidly human."

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The book stems from a joint 40 years of peer-reviewed research by anthropologist Jablonski and historian McGee. The authors wrap the evolution of skin colour in accessible language that the target audience of 6-10-year-olds will easily understand.

It features delightful illustrations by the South African Karen Vermeulen. Their simplicity works harmoniously with the text to convey the message. Illustrations aren't crammed into every nook and cranny of the pages but there is enough detail to captivate curious eyes. Vermeulen works as an illustrator, artist and teacher in Cape Town, and she clearly knows what visually engages children's attention while also conveying information.

It's Just Skin, Silly! has two parts. In the first, Epi Dermis is introduced and answers a few questions about themselves, such as “Why do we have hair on our skin?", “Why do we sweat?", “Why are there different skin colours?", “Why does the sun change the colour of our skin?" and “Why do people care about something like skin colour?". Anyone who has dealt with children will know they are “why" machines. The information in the book is a useful resource for grown-ups who don't always have the answers, and for children who should never stop asking questions.

The first part of the book is interactive; it asks the reader questions and delivers information in short, digestible chunks. When my five-year-old and I read this book together, she enjoyed this part because she enthusiastically chatted along with Epi and frequently jumped up to do what Epi does in the book.

Although she is slightly younger than the book's target audience, this first part introduces her to the evolution of skin colour and provides her with basic information about its functionality. However, she has a limited attention span and usually loses interest before we reach the second part of the book.

This is titled It's Just Science, Silly! and offers a more in-depth look at the science of skin colour. There is also discussion of social perceptions of skin colour, and the child is shown why prejudice is so silly. The simplicity with which facts are presented in this section makes the book particularly useful for school projects, as well as in the primary school classroom.

A warning to creationism enthusiasts: this book is based on science and therefore takes the evolution of humans as the starting point for the story of skin colour. However, the reader is free to read and appreciate the book without necessarily engaging with the reference to humans' ancestors as quadrupeds, and it should still be meaningful, enjoyable and educational.

For the Afrikaans parent, teacher or interested party, there is good news. A translation of the book, Dis Net Vel, My Pel!, will soon be available. It's translated by Izak de Vries, with a foreword by Michael Jonas, director of the Afrikaans Language Monument and Museum. Although the title of this translation may be slightly cringey, I look forward to the availability of this valuable information in Afrikaans.

Who, what, where and how much?

It’s Just Skin, Silly! by Holly McGee and Nina Jablonski with illustrations by Karen Vermeulen was published by Powers Squared and costs R460 at Exclusive Books.

♦ VWB ♦

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