Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Cool science, where are you?

As I read through the array of exceptional children's science books published in the last several years, I can't help but wonder: Cool science, where were you when I was a kid?

The answer, of course, is that cool science has always been around, just not always accessible to young readers, including the kid-me of decades ago. My memories of science books from that time consist of clinical, dry text with black & white illustration, often overly simplistic or of poor quality. It wasn't until I was a grownup looking for science books and magazines for my own kids that I came across dynamic children's writing that captured the "wow" of science. Science hasn't become any more wonderful or awe-inspiring in the last thirty years—the "wow" has been there all along—but effectively communicating that wonder and awe to children is relatively new. Oh, how the kid-me would have loved the vibrant well-told stories and detailed artwork and photography that kids will find between the covers of this today's science books.

So, what's changed? How have today's science writers made the move from dry and lifeless to cool? As a contemporary science writer, what am I trying to do differently than science writers of yesteryear?

One move I make toward "cool" is to keep things fresh. Not always easy to do when writing about things that were discovered long ago. In fact, if you hang around writers long enough, you'll hear something along the lines of "There are no new stories under the sun
. Only new ways of telling the same stories." In science writing, we sometimes do get new stories in the way of new discoveries, but for the rest, this old saying holds true. So one of the first things I do when starting a book is ditch the head-on view and look for an unusual angle. I tap my inner kid, looking for the "Ew!", "Cool!" and "Phew!" in the subject, some aspect that will get an emotional reaction from my young readers. For instance, Pascal's law (water can't be squished so the more pressure applied to it, the faster it leaves a pipe...yawn) becomes interesting and relevant to a 10-year-old when explained as the science of squirt guns. See? Physics can be cool. I also try to connect information in new ways. In Bubble Homes and Fish Farts, I use bubbles as the thread to connect an unusual assortment of animals. There are oodles of animal adaptation books out there, but the bubble angle gives survival a whole new spin.

Another big difference is that I don't set out to teach anything. Instead, my goal is to share. This may sound like splitting hairs or playing with semantics, but it's actua
lly an important distinction. Both involve the author imparting knowledge, but the mindsets are different, and so the attitude and approach to the writing is different, too. Teaching turns the writer into a teacher, and the reader into a student—an unequal relationship with the teacher in an authority position. Sharing allows for equality between writer and reader. I think of it as an invitation to a peer. "Come, sit with me. I just have to tell you about this amazing thing I found." Readers will learn a lot of interesting things in my books, but story always drives my tale, not the need to teach specific information for the readers' own good. When I approach the reader with this attitude of mutual respect, I never have to worry about talking down or becoming didactic, as often was the case in early children's science books. It just doesn't happen.

I take several more steps away from dry and lifeless by engaging readers in a more sensory way. Visually, the illustrations take on a big role, but I want the text to get readers feeling and reacting, too. I search for concrete references that will relate new information to something readers already know—this snail is the size of a large grape; gouramis look like they're shooting hoops when they spit eggs into a bubble nest. My goal is to create images in readers' heads so they really get how big or small (or whatever) something is. For example, saying a blue whale is "big" or "29 meters" doesn't mean much, but when I explain that it can be as long as a basketball court, with a heart the size of a small car, and blood vessels kids can swim through, the images conjured sure show the scale of BIG I'm talking about. I also draw on the other senses whenever possible, describing taste, smell, texture, and especially sound. I'm a huge onomatopoeia fan. Read "fwap-fwap-fwap-fwap", a hammer "clang!", or the "gulp" of a hungry seal, and those sounds instantly echo through your head, putting you in the moment. Lifting the words off the page that way adds layers of interest to the reading experience.

Dry writing often suffers from being too formal, so I like to take it down a few notches, using a voice that is conversational and kid-friendly. And [gasp] that sometimes means using sentence fragments, interjections such as Yikes!, Aha! or No kidding!, or starting a sentence with and or but. I also play with language, adding puns, homonyms, alliteration, double meanings, BIG WORDS, and lo-o-o-o-o-ong words as I would spice to a meal—sometimes none, a little, or a lot, depending on who's coming to supper.

These are the major techniques I use to bring the cool of science to kids...to write the books the kid-me would have enjoyed. The keystone to it all, though, is my genuine sense of wonder or enthusiasm for whatever I write about. A writer's passion has a mysterious way of seeping through the text and becoming contagious. And that's what I want to pass on to my readers—a taste of the wonder and awe I feel at the world around me, so that they'll start asking t
heir own questions, checking things out for themselves, and sharing their excitement with a friend: "Come, sit with me. I just have to tell you about this amazing thing I found."

Science writing has come a long way in the last 30-40 years. This generation of kids won't be asking, "Cool science, where were you when I was a kid?" That makes me smile.

Posted by Fiona Bayrock,
author of
Bubble Homes and Fish Farts


Jean Reidy said...

Amen, Fiona. I was a devoted nonfiction reader as a kid and would have loved the completely fun and accessible books available today. When my now-adult sons were young, wacky science and other fun nonfiction books were just starting to appear. They searched for those books at book fairs and libraries. I don't think there could ever be too many.

Anonymous said...

Right on, Fiona!

The distinction you make between "teaching" and "sharing" is essential.

Of course, good teachers always engage their students to share in the material/experience of science. My high school physics teacher showed us how much he loved physics, so we--at least if we were so inclined--loved it, too.

I can recall his telling us that one of the things he would not accept in his classroom was the student who put the burden of learning on the teacher, who showed up with the attitude, "I'm here. Teach me something!"

So we all showed up ready to learn, and loved it.

Fred Bortz, author of numerous science books for young readers, including Astrobiology in Lerner's "Cool Science" series

Ana said...

Dear Fiona:
I definitely share your comments about old and new science books and after I read your bubbles book a just wanted to go and find those fascianting creatures that have learned to use bubbles for nests, catching prey, and just make a home! I can't wait to see what you will come up next. The 'old' book that inspired me to go into science and science writing when I was a kid was "Microbe Hunters" by Paul de Kruif. Very cool for its time and it was a very cool 4th Grade Science teacher who recommended it to my class. I still have it on my 'essentials' book shelf.
Ana Maria Rodriguez
Author of 14 science books for children and more on the way... www.anamariarodriguez.com

Kelly Milner Halls said...

That's my girl! : ) As always, your rock, Fiona.

Kelly Milner Halls

Dinosaur Mummies
Albino Animals
Wild Dogs
Tales of the Cryptids
Mysteries of the Mummy Kids
Wild Horses
Dinosaur Parade
Saving the Baghdad Zoo (Fall 2009)
In Search of Sasquatch (Fall 2011)

Unknown said...

Great essay, Fiona! So right. On behalf of my kids (and the kid in me) thanks for creating such stellar science books!