Long a staple of amateur nature study, Anna Comstock's Handbook of Nature Study has suffered from its enormous size and the absence of color photographs. These have never been enough for us not to recommend it (it's the best book of its kind), but it has resulted in many opting for alternatives that don't measure up to the 1911 classic simply because of their approachability and engaging visuals. Now, thanks to Living Book Press & Hearthroom Press, both of these "issues" are resolved, and Comstock's magnum opus is fully accessible for a modern audience.
Instead of one huge volume, the Handbook of Nature Study has been reprinted in eight slim volumes according to subject matter. Replacing the original black and white photographs (or lack thereof) are beautiful full color photographs; the original black and white drawings and sketches have been retained, as well as photos referenced directly in the text. The text itself has not been altered. There are also notebooks for students to record observations and sketches while conducting field work.
How Do These Work?
The first of the reprinted volumes contains Comstock's original introductory chapter on the proper study of nature, and the introductions for the individual topics. The main introduction also appears at the beginning of the volume on fish and reptiles, and the specific introductions appear in the corresponding volumes. You don't technically need the Introductions Book, but it is handy to have all of that information readily available in one place.
Each volume is around 220 pages. The titles are as follows:
Comstock's introduction is a defense of nature study, along with a list of the many academic disciplines it is used to support. The main texts contain a total of nearly 1,000 pages of facts and information about the study of animals, plants, minerals, and weather, with dozens of full color photographs in each volume. Discussing everything from balloon spiders to carbon dioxide to seed germination, the books are eminently readable, and supplemented by quotations and poetry (proving that science and art are not irreconcilable).
Frequent lists of questions equip the teacher to engage students by presenting the types of questions one should ask when studying the natural world. The beauty of Comstock's prose is that it is equally effective read aloud by teachers and parents, or as a reference for kids; Comstock herself intended the stories for teachers, who would then teach students the content, ideally in the field. The original book is a favorite among many adherents of the Charlotte Mason method due to its emphasis on nature study and observational learning.
Comstock's prose style, while highly readable, isn't dumbed down or embarrassingly juvenile for older students. The author and her husband, John Henry Comstock, were respected scientists and naturalists with a passion for the wilderness and countryside. If you share that love, or at least desire it and want to foster it in your children, this is an excellent place to start. For those without easy access to nature, the color illustrations in these reprints are a huge benefit.
There are also seven Nature Notebooks to accompany the seven main volumes of the reprint series:
The Nature Notebooks are 132 pages each, and include space for students to record their observations of various wildlife. There are both designated spaces for certain facts, and blank pages for additional notes. Some books feature half-completed sketches for students to complete and color based on direct observation (Notes on Insects, for example), while others contain complete drawings for students to color based on photographs.
Each of the Nature Notebooks also include some principles for observation, including how to capture and preserve insects, where to look for flowers and trees, etc. The notebooks were written under Comstock's aegis by a number of respected authors and naturalists, and while they are best used with the Handbook of Nature Study books, they can be used independently for nature study as well.
Our Honest Opinion:
Nature study, as Anna Comstock stated, is just plain good for children. It awakens in them a sense of truth, fosters their sense of wonder, aids the imagination, improves health, and provides many benefits otherwise withheld in the course of an ordinary school day. Handbook of Nature Study has achieved classic status since its initial publication in 1911, not only for the wealth of information it contains, but for the compelling argument it makes for the essential importance of nature study in any program of learning.
These slimmer, full color reprints retain all the text and value of the original, but in a much more manageable format and with more attractive photographs. The books are print-on-demand, so some of the photo transfer is not perfect, but for the most part there's no issue. Unlike the larger format, these can be easily carried with students out into the field where most of the work will be done.
We highly recommend the accompanying notebooks as well. While students could record their findings in a binder or notebook of their own, the combination of additional guidance, space to record field work notes, and drawings for completion or coloring make these an excellent value, especially by younger students. They are attractive, and can easily lay flat for ease-of-use while handling a specimen.
The texts based on Comstock's original book can be used with any age. Parents can read and/or paraphrase the content for younger students (and ask them the study questions orally), while older kids can use the book to work on their own. The notebooks are appropriate for any age as well, but are best for kids grades 1-6. They will likely pose a challenge for most students, but children usually learn best when they're driven a bit above their comfort and ability level. Taken together, we highly recommend these reprinted volumes and the notebooks both for nature study and simply to improve a child's observational and investigative skills.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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