I have been a fan of the scientific method since I first learned what it was (It's only the single most powerful tool humans have ever created, but that’s another post ).
I was terrible at doing science though – I can’t measure accurately to save my life!
So when I began my writing career, it was no surprise then that I gravitated toward science.
Happily, today’s information books are not the drybones fact delivery systems you might remember from your own childhood. Instead they are groundbreaking in terms of style, appearance, and – most importantly – content.
Here’s what makes contemporary science writing for children so intensely good, it’s a must read for adults:
First publication. The advent of the internet meant that you could no longer put together readily available facts and expect someone to buy them in book form. Instead, science-related books need information that is not readily available. That means science writers have to go to the source.
We read peer-reviewed science journal articles that are behind paywalls. We attend science professional conferences, where experts reveal their new data for the first time. And we go into the labs and field ourselves, interviewing scientists about their current research or documenting new discoveries as they unfold. See: Out of the Ice (Kids Can Press)
So if you want to know what’s going on in science today – and it’s flipping amazing – read a kids’ book. A lot has happened since your H.S. biology class.
Connect the dots. For convenience, schools silo knowledge into discrete categories. Science is in this class; history in that, and ne’er the twain should meet. Most of us carry this conditioning with us for the rest of our lives. But that compartmentalization of information fosters a flawed view of the world.
Contemporary children’s nonfiction helps break down those false boundaries with an integrated approach. For example, my own What’s the Big Idea? explores how a technological innovation, (e.g., the invention of the bicycle), was triggered by real world events (the explosion of a distant volcano), and how it, in turn, went on to change modern society (the feminist movement got its first push off.)
By the way, an integrated-subject book is a bugger to write – the research demands are extraordinary! But oh, the payoff! I for one, will never look at a stethoscope the same way again.
- Clarity.The essential nub of our craft is taking complex topics and making them understandable. Children’s writers do not simplify. We clarify. So whether your are a child or an adult, if you really want to get a grip on a complicated topic like genetic engineering or the Theory of Relativity, consult a kids’ book. (For the record, you’ll find a thorough discussion of gene splicing in Monster Science; I tackled the Theory of Relativity in Science on the Loose and Emmy Noether: The Most Important Mathematician You Never Heard Of).
Infographics. To communicate effectively, words are not enough. You also need numbers (especially for science!) . And since the nineteenth century, when William Playfair invented line graphs, bar charts and pie charts (See Lines Bars and Circles: How William Playfair Invented Graphs, Kids Can Press) pictures have been understood to also play their part.
Contemporary science kidlit excels in visual communication. It includes engaging art plus illuminating infographics like size charts, maps, comparison tables, and labeled diagrams.
Open ended. In my childhood, science was always presented as a done deal. In a stuffy, “Father Knows Best” authoritarian manner, an expert would tell you what the facts were (e.g., dinosaurs are extinct) and the case was closed.
That approach causes problems in three distinct ways:
The experts never told us how they learned these facts.
They never conveyed that research and new discoveries were still ongoing.
And they never conceded that their “facts” could be wrong (All dinosaurs are not extinct).
I believe this approach led directly to the widespread science skepticism we see around us.
Contemporary children’s science writers generally take a different, and I’d say better, approach.We try to explain, even if its briefly, how scientists know something. For example, in Megabugs And Other Prehistoric Critters That Roamed the Planet and That’s No Dino! What Makes a Dinosaur a Dinosaur (coming next year from Kids Can Press), I made sure to include text about how fossils are dated, and how the techniques work.
In all my books, I also make sure to express what scientists know in partnership with what they still don’t know.
These writing techniques can have a huge impact. They allow readers of all ages to see the scientific process at work, and understand for themselves how the complex, step by step discoveries came about. They also leave room for the reader, who can think, “hmmm, I can become a scientist and find new answers too.”
I fell into science writing for children by accident, but I’m awfully glad I did. In a world where a lack of science literacy can be literally deadly –today’s children’s books provide an antidote. And they’re not just for children. They’re for you, too.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.