Don’t be fooled by the silly title and primary-colored monsters in Elise Gravel’s latest book, Killer Underwear Invasion: The children’s picture book is much more than an entertaining bedtime story. One of dozens of fun and informative picture books books from Gravel — including You Can Be, a story of diversity and self-love, and the gender-stereotype exploration Pink, Blue, and You! — her latest foray into socially engaged children’s media is actually an important news literacy teaching moment.
In Killer Underwear Invasion, Gravel’s characters run through real (and several made-up) examples of fake news throughout history, like the 1835 “Great Moon Hoax” by the New York Sun, which tried to convince readers that unicorns, bipedal beavers, and bat-like creatures had been found on the moon. Through the course of the book, young readers are taught how to spot misleading content and just how important it is for all of us, even the young ones, to know when we are engaging with credible information online. While Gravel makes it clear that fake news is not at all funny, her writing sure is entertaining.
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The brightly illustrated book of characters is both a response and a tool in the fight against growing misinformation running rampant across the country, which manifests both as simple, doctored images that get passed around internet forums as fact and intentionally orchestrated disinformation campaigns.
Beyond tech industry and government intervention to prevent the spread of misinformation, a widely accepted solution to the problem is an emphasis on stronger news and media literacy among the general public. Media literacy is defined as “the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and create media in a variety of forms.” News literacy is specifically one’s ability to determine the credibility of news and other information. Both are essential. Organizations like the News Literacy Project, a nonprofit dedicated to news literacy education, offers tools for educators and several resources for at-home news literacy education. Common Sense, a nonprofit that provides media and technology recommendations for families and teachers, has its own resource guide for teaching news literacy to school-aged children, both in the classroom and for parents.
Educational campaigns like these work against a growing problem of mistrust and nihilism aimed at large news outlets and viral internet moments. But as adults do their own learning and unlearning of news consumption, how do we prepare our children? Gravel’s response is Killer Underwear Invasion, a child-friendly how-to guide against conspiracy and misinformation.
The book tackles both the basic and the big questions like, “Why do people make up news?”, “What happens when fake news blows up?”, and “How do we tell real news from fake news?”
Gravel is straight to the point with the answers. People create fake news to make money. They might do it to make money and become famous on the internet. Or they might just do it to gain power. And she offers a refreshingly honest view on the world for kids who understand much more than we give them credit for. “Don’t forget,” she writes in the voice of a pink, round-eared creature, “Social media companies want people to stay on their apps because the longer you stay, the more ads you see, and the more ads you click on, the more MONEY the companies make.”
The book also introduces kids to the concept of confirmation bias, the danger of conspiracy theories, and the ins-and-outs of standards-based journalism, ending on an introductory guide to fact-checking your own sources and finding reliable news media.
Gravel’s not just sharing all of this kid-friendly information in book form, she’s also making it accessible for free on her website, where you can download printable infographics explaining things like refugee communities, racism, social media safety, and consent. There are lessons on the diversity of families and hair and the history of science. If you can think of a big question you’re struggling to talk about with your kids, Gravel’s probably written and drawn about it.
The spread of misinformation has downstream effects on news consumers, content creators, and the average person scrolling their social media feeds, but it also has the potential to impact how children perceive their digital environments. It can foment conspiracy and play on negative cognitive biases and, fundamentally, impact productive learning opportunities. For families wanting to tackle the big issues early, hopefully nipping the scary stuff right in the bud, Gravel’s latest book is worth picking up.
Killer Underwear Invasion is available for purchase online and in stores now.